After getting eliminated from the small-schools state softball tournament last year, Soldotna’s Jordan Sedy and a few teammates stuck around to watch the rest of the tournament.
The Stars took particular notice of Southeast schools Sitka and Ketchikan, which have won five of the seven small-schools tournaments since the division was created in 2005. Sitka won its third small-schools title last year.
“They were facing really fast pitching, but they were hitting the ball into the outfield, and some even looked like home runs,” said Sedy, a recent graduate. “We decided that we need to be able to hit like that.”
Fast forward to Wednesday’s practice at the Soldotna Little League fields. The Stars were practicing against a pitching machine that was 32 feet away from the batter and set at 95 mph.
“If we can hit the machine at 95, we should be able to hit the pitching at state,” said Lauretta Price, another recent graduate.
Soldotna and Homer will find out how they stack up against the rest of the state starting today.
The Stars, who have been to state three of the last four years with a high of a third-place finish in 2010, play at 11 a.m. at Cartee Fields in Anchorage against Monroe Catholic. The Stars have topped the Rams in each of their previous three state appearances.
The Mariners, who have been to state in 11 of the program’s 12 years and won a state title in 2006, play Ketchikan at 11 a.m. at Cartee Fields.
The Kings memorably won their first small-schools title in 2007 against the Mariners, beating Homer twice in the championship round. In one of the games, it appeared Homer had won, but the umpire eventually ruled that the first baseman had bobbled the final out and the Kings came back to win.
Homer split with Ketchikan last year en route to a runner-up finish.
Both the Stars and Mariners come to the tournament well-equipped offensively. Soldotna coach Dave Cleveland said his team has five players that have hit the ball over the fence this year, and Homer coach Bill Bell said a similar number of players have gone long for him.
Soldotna’s Nikki Hegge, a recent graduate, said hitting will be the key to catching up to the Southeast schools.
“The reason they are up there is the always make contact,” Hegge said. “If we can find a way to do that at state, we’ll be up there with the good teams.”
Hegge said her goal is to not strike out at state. She said she has struck out just four times all year.
The graduate also is looking to wrap up her fair share of strikeouts on the mound. The fourth-year player in the program has pitched at state since sophomore year.
The Stars will be relying heavily on Hegge, pitching her as much as possible. The backup pitcher is Jordan Sedy, but Sedy will be playing shortstop because regular shortstop Kaycee Munn is in Costa Rica.
Price will move to third to take over for Sedy.
Pitching a softball is not like pitching a baseball, where the arm action means a player can only go a limited number of innings.
“Last year, I didn’t eat much so I got tired, but I’ve gotten good with that, so it’s no big deal,” Hegge said. “It’s more the mental focus than anything.”
Cleveland has a lot of confidence in Hegge.
“She has a lot of control and she’s really smart about the game,” he said. “We’ve pitched her a whole lot and she seems to do fine with it.”
The Stars said they are also confident in the defense that will back Hegge up.
“We had several games with a lot of errors at the beginning of the season, but we’ve come back from that,” said Sedy, adding she’s just as good at shortstop as she is at third base.
Like Hegge, Sedy said mental focus will be just as important as the physical actions on defense.
“We have to have a lot of team spirit and encourage each other,” she said. “When one person makes a mistake and gets down, it can eventually bring everybody down.
“We don’t want that to happen.”
Cleveland said junior center fielder Maddy Wilcox also will be important on defense because she runs the outfield.
Sophomore Serena Prior will handle things behind the plate.
“It all starts with how the catcher plays,” Cleveland said.
On offense, those that have hit the ball over the wall are Munn, Hegge, Sedy, and recent graduates Lagi Wong and Abby Hanna.
“When everyone is in sync and having a good day, I’m confident we can beat just about anybody,” Price said. “I’m nervous, but I think we’ll do fine.”
Bell also said he’s feeling good about his team, despite the less-than-ideal matchup in the first round.
“It’s going to be challenging,” Bell said. “ Ketchikan always has a pretty good team.”
The Mariners are led by Hannah Larue, who has pitched two no-hitters this year and also provides power in the Homer lineup.
“Our hitting in Kodiak was tremendous,” Bell said of Homer’s final two regular season games. “We had six home runs over the fence.
“I think we’re in a good spot with hitting and pitching at the moment.”
Katy McNary, Miranda Beach and Pam Jantzi will back up Larue on the mound.
“All the pitchers bring different strengths,” Bell said. “If they start hitting one, we’ll bring in somebody else to mix it up.”
Bell also said his lineup has depth.
“I think all the hitters will be equally important,” Bell said. “Hannah is the big gun, but on the days she isn’t hitting well we have enough behind her that we’re in good shape.”