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Young Stars prepared for state softball tourney

Posted: Friday, June 06, 2008

Bats and balls weren't the only things flying during Soldotna's doubleheader sweep of Homer on May 27.

Crucial questions were being asked, too. And coming from a young team with no seniors, that's understandable.

Amidst the opening game against the Mariners, a member of the Stars turned to her coaches and asked what "small ball" was.

Following a week of practicing that strategy in preparation for the small schools state softball tournament today and Saturday at Cartee Fields in Anchorage, every member of SoHi should understand the concept.

"They know now," said Stars coach Dave Cleveland as his team prepared to face Eielson in the first round of the double-elimination tourney at 10 a.m. today. "I think small ball will be the key this weekend -- getting runners on base and advancing them into scoring position.

"A lot of the pitchers are going to be good, fast and accurate," he added. "The way to beat them is with small ball, play defense and stay ahead."

Easier said than done.

But for this edition of the Stars, in just their third year fielding a program and featuring seven freshmen, seven sophomores and two juniors, anything seems possible.

Coming off a 4-8 season during their inaugural campaign and a 9-15 mark last year, when they missed a state berth by a single game, the Stars compiled a weather-shortened 6-9 overall record this season, including a 2-4 mark in the Northern Lights Conference. Both of those wins came against the Mariners on May 27, when SoHi qualified for state and simultaneously eliminated Homer, who beat the Stars once. Their other three losses came at the hands of Kodiak, also playing in the state tournament.

Including that fateful day, Soldotna has now won five of its last six games, the lone loss a 9-8 setback to South.

"They're jelling really, really good. It's like they're figuring it out," Cleveland said. "They're starting to peak and that's a good time to peak."

The Stars now turn their attention to the Ravens, who finished second this season in the MidAlaska Conference and also advanced to state in 2006 and 2005, placing third in the latter.

That's about all Cleveland knows about his opponent.

"I don't know a thing," he conceded. "We're going up there in the dark."

Upon arrival, however, that all changed.

Cleveland on Wednesday said his team had a practice scheduled at Cartee Fields at 3 p.m. on Thursday, with Eielson to follow at 4 p.m. and Sitka and Ketchikan after that.

He planned on watching them all.

"Maybe pick up some strengths or maybe some weaknesses," he said of his goal. "We're just looking for a way to exploit some weakness they might have. Something we can concentrate on."

The Ravens, meanwhile, should be focusing on how to hit Soldotna's top hurler Kaitlyn Wehrli.

Owning a 3-7 record, earning wins in her last three starts, all complete games, the sophomore will take her 2.80 ERA and 32 strikeouts to the hill today in hopes of leading the Stars to their first-ever state tournament victory.

"I think that helped her a lot," Cleveland said of Wehrli's victory over Homer in the first game of the twinbill. "Just because she was with us last year when we lost to Homer all the time and I just think it was a great boost for her to beat the Homer team."

Toeing the slab in SoHi's second game -- whether it be in the winner's bracket against Sitka at 2 p.m. today or at 4 p.m. versus the loser of this morning's contest between Monroe and Ketchikan -- will be Lacey Norman.

"I saw Sitka and Ketchikan last year in a tournament down in Homer," Cleveland said. "They're well-coached. They're good ball teams. But I certainly think we can compete with them."

He's also turning to Wehrli to help lead the offense, which will be missing it's No. 4 and 5 hitters in Emily Smola and Hannah Romberg. Smola, the starting third basemen and relief pitcher, is traveling in Costa Rica, while Romberg, the catcher, is attending a wedding.

"That's going to hurt," he said. "That's why I played the JV a lot last week at those games because they're going to have to step up and fill some shoes."

Moving into the starting rotation is freshman catcher Amandra Cobb and freshman Briana Vinzant, who will take over on the hot corner.

"They're going to have to step it up."

Along with Wehrli, Cleveland said Lydia Forbes and Mariah Darrow, who occupy the top three slots in the batting order, are the most experienced players on the field and will need to show it.

"They're all intact and ready to play. Those three will set the tone," he said. "If I can get them on base, get everybody fired up and excited, we're going to be just fine."

Most teams in the Stars' situation would just be happy to have qualified for the state tournament. Then again, they're not Soldotna.

"The experience factor is good because they are such a young team. It's great game experience where they are in their careers," Cleveland said. "I expect these girls to step up and play well. I think we can definitely compete.

"I'm just ecstatic to be there," he added. "It's a great experience for these girls, the freshmen and sophomores who will be my sophomores and juniors next year, going to state. You see how it feels and you want it the next time. We're building the winning tradition. We started the third year going to state and the next couple of years we definitely want to be contenders every year."

Matthew Carroll can be reached at matthew.carroll@peninsulaclarion.com.



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