It was a rough go of it at first, but the Homer softball team managed to grab a spot at the state tournament for the 13th time in 14 years.
After starting the season with a 13-game losing streak, the Mariners managed to hold strong and finish out 8-3. More importantly, they got wins against their Northern Lights Conference opponents, which was the difference in a state berth and going fishing for the summer.
The bulk of Homer’s early losses came at the hands of some of Alaska’s powerhouse teams in Anchorage, such as West, South and East (the defending large-schools state champion), as well as the traditionally strong teams from Southeast. Homer coach Bill Bell originally set up the tough schedule in the opening month of action, hoping to sharpen and fine-tune his squad.
“But I thought we’d at least pick up a couple wins, maybe get five to eight wins there, not zero,” Bell said.
But a 6-2 conference record (8-16 overall) was good enough to put Homer into the state championship tournament, which begins today at Cartee Fields in Anchorage.
Kodiak and Homer ended the regular season tied for the top spot in the NLC with 6-2 marks, but Kodiak won the coin toss that decided who got the top seed in the state brackets. Homer will face Hutchison — the No. 2 seed from the Mid-Alaska Conference — today at 1 p.m. The winner of that game will play the top seed from the Southeast Conference, Juneau-Douglas, at 3:30 p.m.
“I saw (Hutchison) last year at state, and they didn’t look particularly strong, but I’m assuming they’re stronger now,” Bell said. “I expect a pretty good draw to start off with.”
No matter how things shake out in the first game, Homer (and the other first-round teams) will have to gear up for another game or two Friday. The winner plays Juneau and the loser drops into the bottom side of the double-elimination bracket for a 6 p.m. matchup.
“We might platoon some players in that first game,” Bell said. “We’ll rest our starters.”
Bell said that McKi Needham will start as the pitcher, but Pam Jantzi will likely be brought in to finish up. Needham sports a 6-3 record as a starting pitcher this year with 61 strikeouts and an ERA of 4.68, while Jantzi sits at 1-4 with 22 strikeouts and a 7.42 ERA.
Jordan Raymond, a JV pitcher, could also get some varsity innings under her belt. Raymond has pitched only 5 1-3 innings but holds an ERA of 3.93. It’s a plan that could work well since Homer’s JV squad compiled a 14-1 record this year.
“The only game we lost this year was a one-run game to the East JV,” Bell lauded.
With the strength that the JV team has shown, Bell decided to bring a few players up to the varsity team, putting Mary Hanna Bowe in right field and Isabel Beach on third base.
If Bell and his team wish to win a state championship that has eluded them since 2006, they will probably have to go through a team from the Southeast. Sitka and Ketchikan have combined to win the last five small-schools state titles.
Because Juneau-Douglas and Ketchikan took the two seeds given to the Southeast Conference with strong seasons, it left four-time defending small-schools state champion Sitka out of the picture entirely. Nevertheless, Bell said Juneau is a handful.
“Nobody throws the ball as well and quickly as they do,” Bell said. “Nothing’s out of place with them, they’ve got the fundamentals down.”
Homer lost to Juneau twice earlier in the season with scores of 17-1 and 5-2, but Bell said his team is a much different group right now.
“We were sloppy,” Bell recounted. “Our minds weren’t in it and we just had stupid errors, but it was a lack of experience of the whole as a whole. There just wasn’t a lot of experience from the older kids, that was the biggest thing we saw.”
But once Homer won its first game in early May, the confidence level rose as well, leading to a six-game win streak.
“Things just started to click, we started to hit the ball better,” Bell said. “It was just to convince them that they can win games. They knew they could come out and win convincingly, but to have come-from-behind wins too, then they started believing in themselves.”
Led by the First Team Northern Lights Conference pitcher-catcher duo of McKi Needham and Maggie LaRue, the Mariners have been able to get enough hitting this year, but the team is going to need more than two good batters at the state tournament.
“McKi and Maggie are the real nucleus of the team,” Bell said. “They just have a great camaraderie of setting up batters and thinking together.”
LaRue currently holds a .476 season batting average while Needham is at .470. The pair are responsible for 31.6 percent of the team’s total hits this year (61 of a total 193). LaRue also leads the team with 18 RBIs.
The big question is whether or not the rest of the lineup will be able to do the same.
Second baseman Riley Walls (batting .361) and shortstop Larsen Fellows (.397) have racked up 26 and 23 hits, respectively, while Lauren Kuhns is batting .426 with 20 hits this year.
“We’ve just been doing a lot of defensive practice days,” Bell said about the week. “Mary Jo Cambridge has been working with us with pitching, and I think it’s done a lot of good.”
Cambridge holds pitching experience at Division II University of North Carolina, and also spent time as a coach.
In addition to Needham and LaRue being named to the First Team NLC, Jantzi and Walls were named to the Second Team NLC list.
All-Northern Lights Conference awards
Coach of the Year — Steve Schoessler, Skyview.
Player of the Year — Kaia Yatski, Kodiak.
First team — Kaitlyn Clark, Kodiak; Kait Yatsik, Kodiak; McKi Needham, Homer; Maggie LaRue, Homer; Serena Prior, Soldotna; Cat Schoessler, Skyview; Celeste Chichenoff, Kodiak; Dannika Catt, Kodiak; Sam Reynolds, Skyview; Amber McDonald, Soldotna.
Second team — Kenley Kingrey, Soldotna; Havan Shaginoff, Kenai; Pam Jantzi, Homer; Kassidy Ellison, Kodiak; Christina Glenzel, Kenai; Victoria Oberts, Skyview; Riley Walls, Homer.