Despite recent wintry weather, the Mariner softball team has launched into spring. The team kicks off its season on Tuesday with a conference game against SoHi in Soldotna.
Last week the players could be found on the east corner of the Homer High School turf field, practicing fielding around a makeshift diamond. As the neon ball flew from one base to the next, words of encouragement followed close behind.
Positivity, the players explained, is integral to the team’s ethos and strategy.
“Our three words are grit, commitment and honor,” said junior McKi Needham.
“Commitment to each other, commitment to staying healthy,” added junior Riley Walls.
The words form a creed the athletes have agreed to stand by this season, on and off the field.
“We all made a pledge to eat a good breakfast, and start the day off healthy,” said junior Kyah Doughty.
The Mariners have big goals for the season: They intend to fight their way to the State tournament, an event they’ve qualified for 13 out of the last 14 years. To do so, they must hone their mental toughness.
“It will take a lot of teamwork and communication,” said Walls.
“Also not getting upset, being active on the bench, cheering each other on, and shaking mistakes off,” said Needham.
Earlier this spring the players were offered a unique opportunity to learn more about their sport. Over their spring break, 17 of the team’s 19 players and a handful of chaperones traveled to Tampa, Fla., to participate in a weeklong training trip organized by the Mariners’ head coach, Bill Bell.
“I’ve been hoping to do something like this for years,” said Bell. “The folks we worked with welcomed us with open arms. It met all expectations.”
During the trip the girls practiced on the fields at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, and were able to meet college athletes, spend time exploring the campus and eat in the dining halls. Bell said the exposure to college life and athletics was a big factor in his motivation for planning the trip, giving his athletes a feel for the options available to them after graduation.
While in Florida the Mariners played several games against local high school teams, including a ROTC naval academy, a private prep school, and a big city public high school. At one game in downtown Tampa, two police cars were stationed outside the field for routine security—an unfamiliar sight for the Homer players.
The Mariners also worked with clinician Cindy Bristow, a former professional player, collegiate coach and founder of softballexcellence.com. Bristow’s clinic, in addition to the exposure to new competition, and the sunny locale invigorated the Mariners for the upcoming season.
“I feel we learned a lot about the mental aspect of the game,” said senior Kyla Pitzman.
Walls agreed. “I think we’re a lot more prepared,” she said.
Bell said the trip was intended to inspire the Mariners to think more deeply about their sport, but also more broadly about what it means to be a female athlete.
“Girls have so much inner negative talk. As a coach you have to be positive, find the good, build them up so they will play above themselves. … Girls have to feel good to play good,” he said.
This challenge is particularly important to the game of softball, which Bell describes as a “game of failure.” The sport demands that a player simultaneously be aware of the whole field, but also perform under pressure and scrutiny when the ball is hit directly to her.
“You must accept failure, and then fail better the next time,” said Bell.
The Mariners’ conference consists of only four teams this year: Soldotna, Kodiak, Kenai and Homer, with the top two teams advancing to the state tournament in June. The reduction in conference teams resulted in four fewer scheduled games this season, but Bell intends to fill the vacant weekends with non-conference contests against Anchorage teams.
The Mariners, however, will be cautious not to remove their focus from the competition close by: Kodiak is the team to beat, he said.
The Mariners’ lineup includes five returning seniors: Jenna Dragoo, Maggie LaRue, Pam Jantzi, Kyla Pitzman, and Larsen Fellows, whom Bell feels will provide good leadership to the relatively small squad. Usually the team consists of 26 players, but this year they’ll have to make do with 19. Only two freshmen joined the team this spring, which Bell attributes to the absence of an upper level Little League program to prepare girls for high school level play.
“We have fewer girls this year, and we’re not all at the same skill level or in the same grade, so we’ll have to work together to be one team,” said Pitzman.
As the players laughed and stretched after their workout, they complimented each other on improvement they’d witnessed that practice. If cohesion is key to achieving the Mariners’ goals this season, it appears they are well on their way.
Homer v. SoHi,
at Soldotna, 6 p.m.
Homer v. Kenai,
at Homer, 6 p.m.