The Soldotna Big League softball team is in trouble, even though it has six wins this season.
Interest in softball is low and there is a shortage of players and spectators. The team, which is made up of 16- to 18-year-olds from area high schools, said it hopes to increase the popularity of softball with its energy, skill and dedication to the game.
Coach Tom Sparks is doing all that he can with his 15 players. Sparks has coached baseball and softball for 12 years. This is his third season coaching softball.
"A lot of the girls can throw as hard as the guys," Sparks said. "Plus the pitching mound is only 40 (feet) away."
Sparks said the team's strength comes from its defense and the pitchers' ability to throw strikes.
Sparks said he encourages his players by trying to keep their focus on the game.
"They're a real competitive team," Sparks said.
Sparks said that one of his most serious players is first baseman Jamie Carr of Kenai.
Carr agreed with Sparks' assessment of her disposition and said she is bothered by stupid mistakes.
Carr's intensity doesn't prevent her from being one of the team's biggest supporters. She is upset over the lack of community attention.
"Our fan size is rather small," she said.
Empty bleachers compel the players to act as their own boosters.
"Get ready Morgan," Carr said from first base during Morgan Mize's time on the pitching mound. "You have to follow every pitch to the plate."
The team's size handicap forces the players to rotate positions.
"We had only nine players in seven games," Sparks said. "The girls are amazingly versatile."
Starting pitcher Jessica Foster of Soldotna tries to appreciate the positive aspects of playing on a small team. She said she likes to play defense.
The 17-year-old said as pitcher she feels a lot of pressure and she tries to remain casual.
"I just look at the catcher's glove," she said. "I let J.R. tell me where to pitch it."
Coach Sparks said J.R. Zufelt had never played catcher before joining the team. He said he appreciates Zufelt's commitment and nerve. Even though Zufelt is a boy, he is allowed to play on the team because all boys can participate in softball if they so choose.
According to Foster, sometimes it can be a challenge for teen-agers to schedule time in for softball.
"It's really hard with people working. Nine or 10 of us can usually show up," Foster said.
Foster said she is impressed by teammates Nikki Fry and Christy Walkden of Homer. The two have came to every practice at Guy and Judy Hayes field in Soldotna.
The sacrifices made by Fry and Walkden exemplify the drive of the team. Tabitha Strauss of Soldotna understands sacrifice, too. She is
one of the team's finest bunters.
Softball also can require players to sacrifice their bodies. Carr pulled a muscle in her leg, Walkden is now out with a sprained thumb and Sunday, during warmups before a game against Service, a hard ground ball hit by Service coach Keith Axelson hopped up and caught Peninsula player Sarah Christensen of Kenai on the chin.
Apparently, the connection of bone and baseball was more shocking than painful, as Christensen did not even whimper before throwing the ball back toward Axelson.
As if to add insult to injury, Christensen, along with Jennifer Stout of Soldotna, had to play on the visiting team due to Service's inability to stock a
full roster. A softball team can not compete with less than nine people.
"She is not a traitor," Stout's mother said.
Even with Stout and Christensen playing first and second base, Service was unable to defeat the Peninsula team. A powerful hit by Zufelt in the seventh inning resulted in an RBI that won the game.
Zufelt was 3-for-3 in the game, while Fry was 2-for-3 and Carr was 2-for-2.
Foster yielded two runs in four innings of work, while Mize gave up four runs in two-thirds of an inning and Carr got the win by pitching the rest of the game and giving up three runs.
Foster said the victory was exciting.
"Since we're older now, it's a fast-paced game. Three up, three down. It's a small field. People should come see," she said.
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