Injury had already robbed Homer senior Chelsea Carr of two appearances at the small-schools state softball tournament. She wasn't about to allow Soldotna to take a second trip from her, as well.
Carr's RBI single in the eighth inning was the decisive blow in the Mariners' 8-5, tension-packed victory over the host Stars on Friday in Northern Lights Conference play.
With Kodiak already holding the conference's top seed to the state tournament, Friday's contest was to determine the NLC's second entrant. Homer finishes the regular season at 4-2 in the league and 6-11 overall, while Soldotna ends at 2-4 and 6-10.
The teams had already produced high drama in their first two league games this season -- with Homer coming back in the seventh inning to win the first and SoHi bolting back in the seventh to swipe the second -- and the extra inning didn't disappoint as the climax to the triology.
The Homer program, under coach Bill Bell, makes its eighth trip to state in nine years of existence. The lone blotch on the record came last year, when Soldotna closed the season with a pair of blowout victories over the Mariners to secure the Stars' lone state trip in four years of existence.
Homer won the state title in 2006 and was the runner-up in 2007, but Carr did not play either of those years due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament she suffered during a gym practice during her freshman season. Bell vividly remembers the play at the plate during the wiffleball game that caused the injury. The coach sees the injury's effects to this day.
"She used to be lightning fast," Bell said.
Carr may have lost some speed, but she can still hit, as she demonstrated this season by socking two balls over the outfield fence. That's exactly what she had in mind when she came to the plate with runners on first and second with two outs in the 5-5 game.
"I just went up to the plate thinking to myself, 'Hit it over the fence,'" she said. "It turned out OK."
That's because Carr sent a screaming liner to center field that scored Jessica Buckley. When the ball got by center fielder Megan Hardy, Brittani Stafford also came in to score. Carr eventually gave the Mariners a three-run cushion by scoring on a wild pitch. It was Carr's third run of the game.
All Homer starter and freshman Sydney Sligh would need was one run. She retired Soldotna in order to put the finishing touches on eight innings of work where she allowed five runs -- two earned -- on four hits while striking out 12 and walking five.
"We were pretty disappointed after last season," said Carr, one of Homer's five seniors. "We thought about state the whole season. I'm happy we were able to come through in the end."
Bell said the blowout losses to Soldotna that abruptly canceled Homer's annual trip to state served as a wake-up call. The Mariners knew they would have to improve to keep up with the program molded by Soldotna head coach Dave Cleveland and assistant Guy Hayes.
"We just worked really hard on defense," said Bell, who has 36 players in his blossoming program. "Guy and Dave have a tight defensive team."
In the end, it was Soldotna's defense that faltered, because the Stars would have been out of the eighth inning if not for a throwing error by pitcher Savannah Hegge that allowed Buckley to reach first base.
Hegge managed to keep Soldotna in the game despite struggling with her control. In eight innings, she gave up just four hits and three earned runs while whiffing 14. She also had six hit batters and five walks.
"Our pitching was a little off, and we had some trouble hitting," Cleveland said.
Stafford, Carr and Jesse Erickson, who all reached on walks or after getting hit, scored in the top of the first to give Homer a 3-0 lead.
SoHi's Alisah Kress scored in the second inning on a single by Lacey Norman before the Stars rallied to take the lead in the third. Norman, the No. 9 batter, again had the big hit, doubling to score Amandra Cobb and Hegge. Kress and Norman then scored on passed balls for a 5-3 lead.
Sligh, thanks to double plays in the fifth and seventh innings, faced just one batter over the minimum the rest of the way, allowing the Mariners to work their way back into the game.
"There was never a doubt we could come back," Bell said. "The first game, we came back on them in the seventh."
In the fifth, Carr was hit by a pitch and scored on a passed ball. In the sixth, Ashley Kettelle tied the game when she singled and eventually scored on a wild pitch. Homer nearly won the game in the seventh, when Erickson was thrown out at the plate trying to score on a ball that got past catcher Hannah Romberg.
Cleveland, who thanked the school and community for supporting the team, said Soldotna will use the season-ending loss just like Homer used disappointment last year. The team has no seniors, seven juniors and six sophomores.
"We'll use this and Kodiak," Cleveland said. "These teams just beat us by a few runs. We just need to keep improving for next year."
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