Less than six weeks from now, the state high school softball tournament will begin. The Lady Mariner softball team, led by longtime Coach Bill Bell, officially kicks off its season today with games against the Kenai Kardinals in Kenai. The JV team is set to play at 4 p.m., with the varsity game at 6 p.m.
The team has its sights on another shot at the State Championship.
Having made it to the state tournament 12 out of the last 13 years, Coach Bell notes "winning" as the goal for a team that seems to improve throughout the season every year.
Only two teams from the Northern Lights Conference will be going to state, which means Homer, Kenai, Skyview and Soldotna in the Southern Division will be needing a fast start to be in contention. There is no conference tournament. Teams qualify for state based on their regular-season conference record.
Needless to say, the teams have not been able to get much practice time due to the amount of snow.
"We need a weather miracle," said Skyview Coach Steve Schoessler.
If high-scoring, high-hitting slugfest games are your thing, then this softball season may be the one for you to watch.
Last year, it was Homer and Soldotna qualifying for the state tournament, as both teams took the top two spots in the NLC. SoHi took a 10-9 win before losing two games with scores of 12-4 and 10-4. Homer had two wins — 8-3 and 10-5 — on the first day, then lost to Sitka 12-8, beat Ketchikan 7-5, and ultimately lost the championship game 14-12 to Sitka, the second year in a row the teams met in the title game.
So, what kind of season are the local teams expecting this year?
Sitka has won three straight state small-schools titles, besting Homer in two of those. Bell said he would like to put a stop to that this season. The two teams will get a chance to play each other in the regular season, with two games on May 3 and 4.
"The Sitka coach (Bob Potrzuski) has been sending me pictures of them practicing on their new turf field," Bell said.
"I sent one back of our field covered with snow."
Homer busted out a 14-5 overall record and 9-1 conference mark last year, which was capped by a third-straight NLC title.
Bell said his team has only practiced on grassy fields for the last couple of days. Before that, the Mariners resorted to indoor practices and training on the Homer Spit.
"I think this will be a really competitive season," he said. "The biggest difference is that we haven't quite consolidated our infield yet. We haven't had our team together at once."
Six seniors graduated last year, including catcher Lauren Cashman, infielder Monica Davis and shortstop Brooke DeVaney. However, a bulk of last year's strong junior class is returning, with such names as Miranda Beach, Kayla Hutt, Katie Kirsis and pitcher Hannah LaRue leading the way. That strong senior core is complemented by a dedicated group of freshmen, including Nicky Needham who has been working on her game in the off season.
LaRue last year broke Homer High School's record for home runs in a single season with seven. Defensively she will be one of Homer's primary pitchers and leaders of the infield with outfield leadership coming from Kirsis.
"I think we're going to be strong offensively this year, I'm really happy with our offense so far," Bell said. "We want to get back to state of course, but we're concentrating on fundamentals."
Bell said his team knows they have to work to win, which keeps them motivated for another shot at the crown.
Senior Miranda Beach has high hopes for her team, saying "I'm ready to start training toward state and a first-place finish this year."
The Lady Mariners' game plan doesn't focus on one side of the ball more than the other, which would explain their great offensive and defensive work as the three time defending Northern Lights Conference champions.
Bell said he also is looking forward to next season, when Juneau-Douglas joins the small-schools division, which he said will put the "wild card" factor into the equation.
"Soldotna is certainly always in the mix, Kodiak is going to come up strong again, I can tell you that," he said.
Homer freelance writer Norm Anderson contributed to this report.