Less than six weeks from now, the state high school softball tournament will begin, and the first game of the season is yet to be played.
Only two teams from the Northern Lights Conference will be going to state, which means Soldotna, Kenai, Skyview and Homer in the Southern Division will be needing a fast start to be in contention. There is no conference tournament. Teams qualify for state based on their regular-season conference record.
Needless to say, the teams have not been able to get much practice time due to the amount of snow outdoors.
“We need a weather miracle,” said Skyview coach Steve Schoessler.
If high-scoring, high-hitting slugfest games are your thing, then this softball season may be the one for you to watch.
Last year, it was Homer and Soldotna qualifying for the state tournament, as both teams took the top two spots in the NLC. SoHi took a 10-9 win before losing two games with scores of 12-4 and 10-4. Homer had two wins — 8-3 and 10-5 — on the first day, then lost to Sitka 12-8, beat Ketchikan 7-5, and ultimately lost the championship game 14-12 to Sitka, the second year in a row the teams met in the title game.
In addition to all those high-scoring games, Skyview had an 18-17 win over Kenai earlier in the season for their maiden victory.
“It’s kind of weird in softball when every ball gets hit in the gap,” Schoessler said. “Suddenly an eight-run lead can be gone in a hurry.”
So, what kind of season are the local teams expecting this year?
Sitka has won three straight state small-schools titles, besting Homer in two of those. Mariners coach Bill Bell said he would like to put a stop to that this season, and the two teams will get a chance to play each other in the regular season, with two games on May 3 and 4.
“The Sitka coach (Bob Potrzuski) has been sending me pictures of them practicing on their new turf field,” Bell said. “I sent one back of our field covered with snow!”
Homer busted out a 14-5 overall record and 9-1 conference mark last year, which was capped by a third-straight NLC title.
Bell said his team has only gotten to practice on grassy fields for the last couple of days. Before that, the Mariners resorted to indoor practices and training on the Homer Spit.
“I think this will be a really competitive season,” he said. “The biggest difference is that we haven’t quite consolidated our infield yet. We haven’t had our team together at once.”
Six seniors graduated last year, including catcher Lauren Cashman, infielder Monica Davis and shortstop Brooke DeVaney. However, a bulk of last year’s strong junior class is returning, with such names as Miranda Beach, Kayla Hutt, Katie Kirsis and pitcher Hannah LaRue leading the way.
“I think we’re going to be strong offensively this year, I’m really happy with our offense so far,” Bell said. “We want to get back to state of course, but we’re concentrating on fundamentals.”
Bell said he looking forward to next season also, when Juneau-Douglas joins the small-schools division, which he said will put the “wild card” factor into the equation.
“Soldotna is certainly always in the mix, Kodiak is going to come up strong again, I can tell you that,” he said.
The other state team last year, Soldotna, features a lot of old faces from a season ago, but the biggest change is the coach.
Dave Cleveland and Guy Hayes stepped down as coaches and handed the reigns over to Kelli Knoebel, a Wisconsin native who describes herself as a “softball junkie.”
“I’ve played the game for years, through high school and did some summer ball in college, and if there’s a game going on, I’m there,” Knoebel said.
Cleveland explained that a knee replacement and grandchildren were the determining factors in not returning.
“I’m very excited for the season,” Knoebel said. “We can’t wait to get out there and play some games.”
SoHi, which ended with a 12-9 regular season record in 2012 (8-2 conference), will be featuring a large freshman class, but Knoebel said it will be the senior leaders that will be the difference in whether or not SoHi goes to state this year. The five seniors are Tanisha Chavez, Kaycee Munn, Maddie Wilcox, Kalina Smith and Vicky Tachick.
“We have a lot of good leadership, and good quality fielding and hitting,” she said. “Being it’s my first season, I told them let’s start with winning one game.
“From there we can work at being a quality contender. I hear Homer and Kodiak are strong, and Kenai is there too. Right now, we hope to be right up there with them.”
Chavez and Serena Prior are currently targeted as pitchers on the team, according to Knoebel, and along with the skills of Munn at shortstop, could present a challenge to other teams. Wilcox and Tachick are two powerful hitters, according to Knoebel, and Smith will “probably be our utility lady.”
“We’re definitely going to have that mental edge with the seniors,” she said. “We haven’t been able to get outside much, but we’re coming up with creative ways of fine-tuning the fundamentals.”
One of the teams that missed the postseason last year, the Skyview Panthers, return this season with 23 players currently on the roster, and only one loss to graduation — Liz Schoessler.
“It’s not going to be a huge detriment. The bulk of the team is juniors,” coach Steve Schoessler said. “We’re looking pretty solid. I think hitting has been our best in the past. Putting a good solid defense behind (pitcher) Sam (Reynolds) is going to be a huge difference, because defense was our weakness in the past. Watching them in practice, they’re at a much higher level than last year.”
The squad snagged its first-ever victory last season against Kenai en route to a 1-9 conference record, but one year more of experience can only help the squad.
Schoessler returns as head coach for a fifth year, and said the team’s defense and pitching will make the difference.
“Our team goal is to make it to state of course,” Schoessler said. “To do that, we have to be the second-best team in the conference. We’re really going to have to step our game up and be tough.”
Cat Schoessler is a returning All-Conference player, and will be likely catching pitches from Reynolds, a junior. Along with that tandem will be shortstop Kayla Scroggins — the only senior on the team — and transfer student Demery Garrant, Mykaela Rybek and Victoria Oberts in the outfield.
Coach Schoessler said he is excited to have the chance to play a few teams outside the Peninsula teams this year, such as Lathrop, Monroe Catholic, Eagle River and South.
Mark King returns as head coach of the Kenai Kardinals, and he said there are a lot of young players on the team.
“We’re looking pretty good, we’re hitting the ball well in the batting cages,” King said. “We have pretty good power. If I had to pick one thing we do well, it would be hitting.”
Kenai finished its regular season with a 9-9 record last year, and 5-5 in the conference.
This year, the Kards only lost six players to graduation, and there will be two seniors on the squad this season — catcher Carly Norvelle and shortstop Hope Steffensen.
“As always, we want to go to state,” said King, echoing the statements of every coach in Alaska. “I love our conference, all the coaches get along well. We respect each other.”
Havan Shaginoff will debut as pitcher for Kenai, and will be joined by infielders Hannah Evans and Jessica Roper.
“This year’s kind of a rebuilding year for me and Kenai,” King said. “We need to get out there and get the girls on a field.”
Kenai is scheduled to play its first game on April 23 against Skyview, and will take on Homer on April 25.