The Homer softball program has things so figured out that when coach Bill Bell jokes that his squad was practicing Friday in XTRATUF boots with cleats, one almost believes him.
"You don't buy that, huh?" said Bell, who is in his seventh year coaching the varsity.
The Mariners actually were preparing for the season by taking to the soggy field in XTRATUFs, which is standard-issue footwear in Homer. The program, which has gone to state in 10 of its 11 years, was not going to let a little water get in the way of its pursuit of a second small-schools state title.
"This is a team that has the potential to do that," said Bell, whose squad won state in 2006.
Homer has 30 athletes out for the program, but the increasing popularity of softball on the Kenai Peninsula, plus the looming presence of Kodiak, means a state bid is no sure thing.
Two teams qualify for state out of the Northern Lights Conference, which includes Soldotna, Skyview and Kenai in addition to the Mariners and Bears.
As usual, the Mariners will have to be wary of Soldotna. Dave Cleveland is in the sixth year of building a program that finished third at state last year and fourth in 2008.
"Coach Bell runs a pretty good program down there," Cleveland said. "I think Homer will be the one to beat this year, but I hope they're saying we're the ones to beat."
Homer and Soldotna will have to start paying more and more attention to Kenai Central and Skyview, a pair of two-year varsity programs.
Kenai coach Mark King has nine returners back from a team than finished 5-7 in its maiden campaign.
"I think those two (Homer and Soldotna) are really the ones to look out for," King said. "Homer's probably got the biggest program in the conference, but we're really planning on giving them a run for their money."
At Skyview, coach Steve Schoessler is building for the future. The Panthers did not win a game last year and have four girls on the team this year with softball experience. With no seniors, Schoessler has a long time to build up this team.
"We're going to be much better toward the end than we are starting out," Schoessler said. "We'll have some good games toward the end of the year."
The following is a closer look at the Peninsula's teams:
The Mariners will be led by senior captains Alecia Stafford and Ashley Ketelle. Stafford will play center field, while Ketelle will be the shortstop.
Senior Zoe Fogg will handle the pitching. Last year's top pitcher, Sydney Sligh, moved to Arkansas during the offseason.
Bell said the Mariners also will lean on juniors Monica Davis, a left fielder, and Brooke DeVaney, a second baseman.
"I think we've got a pretty good defense," Bell said. "We're well-rounded this year."
Bell also said his team had a scrimmage and he was really happy with hitting.
The Mariners open up the season by traveling to Kenai for a 4 p.m. game on Thursday.
Kenai Central Kardinals
King has the makings of a balanced program, with talented players at each grade level.
"We're going to be stronger than we were last year," King said. "A lot of these girls have been playing together through Little League on up. They're pretty comfortable with each other and they have very good chemistry."
King added the team has a lot more confidence after competing at the high school level for a year.
Senior Samantha Little will pitch and play second base, while senior Sarah Bressler is the catcher and senior Shaina Aho is the shortstop.
Junior Briana King will play first and pitcher.
King said the speed on the team comes from the sophomore class, particularly outfielders Hope Steffensen and Carly Norvelle. The future also looks bright with a pair of freshmen -- third baseman and outfielder Hazan Shaginoff and pitcher and utility player Jodi Cook.
King said he doesn't have a dominant pitcher, but that he's comfortable with putting King, Cook or Little on the mound.
"We've got a good defense," King said. "As long as the girls get it over the plate and give them an opportunity to put it in play, the defense has been looking really strong."
The coach also said the offense should be improved thanks to the addition of a batting cage at Kenai Central.
One thing that's nice about a young, inexperienced group is that progress is so obvious. Schoessler said he has some coaches that can't make every practice. Those coaches marvel at the strides the girls are making over the course of three or four days.
"The girls have made tremendous strides," Schoessler said. "We've done a lot of work on mechanics, and they've picked up a lot of that."
The returners for the Panthers are junior Liz Schoessler, a second baseman and pitcher; junior Dakota Cruze, a catcher; and sophomore Kayla Scroggins, a pitcher and infielder.
Freshman Cat Schoessler also joins the team with some Little League experience. She is a utility player.
Some of the new players with promise are pitcher and utility player Samantha Reynolds, infielder Victoria Oberts, infielder and outfielder Jessica Roper and outfielder Mykaela Rybac.
"We have a whole host of girls," Schoessler said. "We've been running 18 at practice."
The Panthers open their season on May 2 against Soldotna.
The Stars won't have the whipping right arm of graduated pitcher Savannah Hegge to lean on this season.
"It's gonna be tough," Cleveland said. "Savannah could throw it so hard."
The coach said he has built up the program to be able to sustain a loss like Hegge.
"Our strength is still good, solid fundamentals, good defense and good hitting and aggressive baserunning," Cleveland said.
The Stars have plenty of experience. Catcher Amandra Cobb, second baseman Alisah Kress, and shortstop and pitcher Briana VinZant have all spent four years in the program. Senior right fielder Maddy Tice is in her second year with the team.
Junior Nikki Hegge will take over some pitching duties from her sister. Sophomore first baseman Natalie Kress saw varsity time as a freshman, while junior Jordan Sass will play third and pitch.
Sophomores Kaycee Munn and Madeline Cox will play outfield, while sophomore Tanisha Chavez will provide depth on the mound.
"I think our hitting will be much improved this year," Cleveland said. "We have a couple four-year players, and some second- and third-year players, that are really getting the hang of hitting.
"We hit pretty good last year, and I expect us to continue that trend."
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