In less than a week, high school girls softball teams will be ready to hit the diamond and get the 2014 season underway, and this year, opening day looks as likely as ever with the recent run of dry, warm weather.
Ballfields are not as simple to compete on as soccer pitches and running tracks. The infield dirt and outfield grass need to be worked into playable condition before an event can take place. It’s not as easy as just waiting for the snow to disappear.
Luckily, most diamonds on the Peninsula are nearly there, which means all that’s left to do is play some ball.
In Alaska small-schools competition, only two teams from the Northern Lights Conference qualify 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, as teams make the trip based on their regular-season conference record.
While the Northern Lights Conference is not changing, other regions are.
The Mid-Alaska Conference, which includes Fairbanks area teams, is losing one of its two state bids this season, while the Southeast Conference, which harbors some of the powerhouse teams like Sitka and Ketchikan, is gaining a state bid to increase its total to three.
In addition to the state berths change, Juneau-Douglas is dropping down from the large-schools ranks to the small-schools Southeast Conference.
Last year, Homer established itself as the top team with a 9-1 NLC record, while Kodiak earned the second state berth by finishing with an 8-2 record.
The big question for teams statewide will be whether Sitka — which has won four straight state championships — can continue its dominance in the small-schools state tournament.
“One of the things that I saw when we visited (Sitka) last year was that they were mad a soccer program was being started there,” said Homer coach Bill Bell, who realized that without a soccer program in the spring, Sitka was able to draw in many more girls to the softball team.
“That made it clear to me why they were so strong.”
The Skyview Invitational tournament that was originally scheduled for this weekend had to be canceled due to the condition of the ballfields.
The following is a closer look at each Peninsula team:
Coach Bill Bell can usually rely on bringing a stout team to state — he’s done so for 12 of the last 13 years.
The Mariners racked up a 15-6 record last year en route to their fourth straight NLC regular season title, which punched their ticket to state for a fifth consecutive year.
After finishing second to Sitka in 2012, Homer harbored hopes of finally winning another state title after taking their maiden championship in 2006.
However, the squad came up short and finished third in the state finishing results in 2013.
“We haven’t thought too much about last year,” Bell said. “We’ve just been working on getting our fundamentals down.”
Gone from the 2013 team are NLC All-Conference First Team members Miranda Beach, Hannah LaRue and Katie Kirsis. Beach and Hannah LaRue were also both named to the state All-Tournament team.
Juniors Maggie LaRue and Pam Jantzi and sophomore Mcki Needham all return with state experience. LaRue will start as catcher and Jantzi and Needham will bring the power on the pitching mound.
“I think we have a pretty solid team,” Bell said. “We’re pretty strong in sophomores and juniors, and just have had a pretty good turnout.”
The five seniors on the team are Hayley Hughes, Brenna Hebarts, Jordyn Haye, Cheyanna Parr and Sydney Paulino.
Interestingly enough, none have significant varsity experience, and are stepping up from the JV squad from last year.
Additionally, sophomore Riley Walls (second base), junior Larsen Fellows (shortstop) and junior Kyla Pitzman (third base) will help to fill out the infield.
“We’re kind of at that stage with five weeks of practice, it’s like have we gotten anything done?” Bell said. “I think we’ll be right in the mix. Kodiak sounds strong, and I was talking with Kenai and Skyview, and I know they had good turnouts.”
Bell said his team had the opportunity to get some training from two softball clinicians — Bill Hillhouse, a Pennsylvania men’s fastball pitching coach, and Howard Kobata, a defensive field specialist.
“I think both of them helped quite a bit,” Bell said. “I think it elevated the girls and made them realize there’s another level they can reach.”
The Mariners will be traveling up to Anchorage for their first contest of the year against Chugiak on Friday, followed by a matchup against the defending large-schools champions East Thunderbirds.
“Those are the two toughest schools up there, so it’ll be a good plan to see where we are,” Bell said.
After a round with Skyview on April 29, Homer will road trip to Juneau the first week of May.
Kelli Knoebel returns for her second season as coach of the Stars, after a rookie coaching campaign in which SoHi finished 7-3 in the NLC, just one win behind Kodiak’s record of 8-2, which was the difference between a state berth and staying home.
“What I saw (last year) with the kids that came out, the kids bought into my system, my philosophy, and we had great games,” Knoebel said. “What it comes down to is the culture that we cultivate. It’s not always wins and losses.
“We try to encourage family and team and unity.”
SoHi will be missing an All-Conference First Team member from last year’s squad to graduation in Kaycee Munn, but Knoebel holds a lot of confidence in the returning members that she believes will go a long way in helping the Stars get back to the state tournament.
“We’re dropping everything else at the door and playing softball,” Knoebel said. “They want to be there, and it’s motivating, and it’s getting them to buy into our system.”
Eight starters from last year are returning, including starting pitcher Serena Prior, a senior who has state experience. The other two seniors on the team are Kenley Kingrey at third base and Allison Nelson at second.
Knoebel also lauded a solid sophomore class, which includes Amber McDonald, Delaney Schneider and Jessica Hannah.
“We have a lot of good fielders behind (Prior),” she said.
Soldotna will begin its season on the first of May with a matchup against Kenai Central. That opening conference game is followed by two games on May 1 and 2 against visiting Kodiak.
Knoebel said if her team can come out of the box and grab some wins against conference opponents like the Kodiak Bears, it will be a huge step toward putting them in position for a state bid.
“It’ll be a good test for us,” Knoebel said. “That’s three games back to back, we’ll be able to get a feel for the season.”
The Panthers softball squad is looking for its first state berth ever in the team’s final year.
With the team finding itself on an upward trend and a number of key players returning for their senior year, this season might be the one.
“It is a little bit,” said coach Steve Schoessler when asked if this season feels different. “We had a lot better turnout in open gym, and the enthusiasm around school is different, the girls are more interested.
“They expect a lot more of themselves and they came in above where they left last year.”
After recording the program’s first ever victory in 2012, the Panthers continued to show improvement in 2013 with a 7-7 overall record (4-6 in the NLC).
Schoessler returns as head coach for the sixth year, and said he believes his squad can fulfill its potential this year if they can stay consistent.
“The big thing is getting by without committing errors,” Schoessler said. “That hurt us last year. We would string errors together and let the other team catch up and win. We played Kodiak in one game that we were leading, and we had a bunch of errors in a row and they ended up winning.
“I think the girls have matured enough where we can commit one error and get back to playing ball.”
While defensive mistakes have often been the downfall of Skyview in recent years, Schoessler said he has been pleased with the offensive firepower that he’s seen.
“We’ve always been able to hit really hard and well, but it’s usually right to somebody,” Schoessler said. “Homer has had some good pitchers, and even (Bill Bell) said he’s shocked we’ve hit so well.”
Schoessler would also like to earn a state berth not only for his team, but because he has decided to hang up his high school coaching hat at the end of the season.
“I’ve been coaching on the Peninsula since 1982, my son is a freshman this year, and with the school closing, my coaching days are over,” he said.
The longtime coach mentioned that assistant coaches Sheila Kupferschmid and Beau Manley have been a great help this year and in years past.
Kupferschmid, a veteran volleyball coach, was an assistant several seasons ago, but managed to return for the final year. Manley has been an assistant for the duration of Schoessler’s years as the head coach.
As far as what the team looks like, Schoessler said he has about 29 girls playing this year, and quite a few of them are seniors.
Returning as starting pitcher is Sam Reynolds, a second team All-Conference member in 2013, and she’ll be throwing a lot to Northern Lights All-Conference First Team catcher Cat Schoessler.
Victoria Oberts returns at shortstop, Aubrey Rodriguez at third base, and Hannah Glaves could be battling sister Joanne (a junior) for the first base position.
In the outfield is Mykaela Rybak, Kristen May and Jessica Lefter.
“Our defense should be strong as it’s ever been,” Schoessler said. “Sam’s been strong on the mound. She hasn’t done a lot with softball, but she’s a natural with throwing.”
The Panthers will face a tough crowd to begin their season. Games with Bartlett, Eagle River, Dimond and West make up the last weekend of April as the team heads up to Anchorage. Following that weekend is the first home game of the year against Homer on April 29.
Kenai endured a rough season in 2013, going 2-8 in the conference, which equated to last place.
This year, Mark King has bigger expectations of the Kards.
“We’re hitting really well in the (batting) cages,” King said. “We’re swinging a bunch of girls from JV to varsity, so it remains to be seen who’s going to be that one consistent hitter.
“I think as long as we keep our heads together, realistically, this group has what it takes.”
King said his team holds several powerful hitters, as well as a number of contact hitters that will aid in getting runners on base. With a healthy line of hitters, he hopes it will make up for a young fielding team.
“If I were to weight it, our offense and hitting is probably stronger of the two,” King said. “That’s simply because there’s some girls that don’t have a lot of experience. But on the other hand, looking at cage, if they hit like they have been, we’ll do well.”
With more girls getting time in Kenai’s open gym sessions, King hopes the practice from that many more players will help get his team on the board more consistently.
Missing from the squad are two All-Conference First Team players — Carly Norvelle and Hope Steffensen. Norvelle was a three-year starting catcher and Steffensen a shortstop.
King said in place of Norvelle at the catcher’s position will be senior Shannon Evans, and taking over for Steffensen will be sophomore Ashley Young.
“I told the girls, I said I’m going to practice you in multiple positions so you know every spot,” King said. “The more you know the more valuable you are to me.”
Along with Evans, the team seniors are first baseman Kristina Glensel, third baseman Allison Courtly, and pitcher Havan Shaganoff, who could also swap with the corner bases. Shaganoff brings several years of experience on the mound.
Completing the lineup is second baseman Ashley Maxson, and outfielders Alyssa Hurr, Darian Saltenberger and Rebecca Willard.
The Kards open their season with a May 1 matchup against Soldotna.