The sports action is red hot for Homer High Mariner teams as the season draws to a close. Homer girls track and field are 1, 2, and 3A state champs following competition in Palmer. The softball team won Northern Lights Conference regions and heads to state championship play in Fairbanks beginning today, June 1. The boys soccer team bowed out of state championships in Eagle River after losing to Juneau’s Crimson Bears, but came home with the academic award. In baseball, the Mariners put up a strong battle in Southern Conference regions, but dropped a final game to Soldotna on Friday kept them from moving on to state.
Track and field
“It couldn’t have worked out better. The kids were amazing,” said Coach Bill Steyer of the Mariners track and field team. Competing against 18 other schools, the girls are Homer’s first state champions with 118 points and the boys’ 54 points earned them fourth place.
In three of four relays, Homer girls were first across the finish line: Cheyenne Gillette, Lauren Evarts, Alia Bales and Kaylee Veldstra in the 4×400; Megan Pitzman, Gillette, Evarts and Autumn Daigle in the 4×400; and Pitzman, Audrey Rosencrans, Lauren Kuhns and Daigle in the 4×800.
The boys team of Jared Brant, Bill Rich, Jacob Davis and Luciano Fasulo took first in the 4×800 relay and Joel Carroll cleared six feet to take first in the high jump.
“(Kuhns) is a senior and this was her first time coming out for track. She ended up becoming a major player on our team for the girls distance,” said Steyer. In addition to being on a relay team, Kuhns also competed in the 1600- and 3200-meter events.
Kaylee Veldstra was first in the 100-meter and Anna Brock placed first in shot put and discus.
“(Steyer) kept asking me if I was going to do track and I thought why don’t I just give it a shot. I already have a swimming scholarship and thought it would be a good way to get more well-rounded,” said Kuhns, who will attend Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., in the fall. “I’m a distance swimmer, so it made for a kind of easy transition. I already have the lung capacity and the cardiovascular strength.”
Ironically, Kuhns said Assumption College’s track coach has already talked to her swim coach “and it looks like I’ll probably be doing track as well as swimming,” she said.
Brock, a sophomore, was coached in both shot put and discus by Nikki Fazenbakker.
“She’s an excellent coach,” said Steyer, adding, “It isn’t too often someone wins both events like that.”
Brock, who began participating in track when she was in middle school, agreed, saying Fazenbakker was the “best coach I’ve ever had. … She’s fun and understanding, too.” Still, Brock said she was surprised by her wins.
“A girl in front of me does more feet than I do consistently, but she had a very bad weekend and I came out on top, which was a surprise, but a good surprise,” said Brock of the shot put competition. “In discus, I didn’t know what would happen. There were people that could beat me and people I could beat.”
Going into state competition, Steyer knew the team had what was needed “if everybody performed the way they should.” As it turned out, “everyone was mentally and physically ready and it came together. It was pretty cool,” Steyer said.
This is Steyer’s last year coaching Homer High’s track and field and cross country teams. On Sunday night, he flew south to join his wife in Eugene, Ore., where he will help coach at Sheldon High School.
“I’m really going to miss him,” said Kuhns. “I only got him for a year, but I know the team really jelled with him. He’s a great coach and is going to be sorely missed.”
After four back-to-back games at Homer’s Jack Gist Park, the Mariner girls emerged NLC victors and are headed to state. Seniors Mary Hana Bowe and Elsie Smith were named to the all-tournament team and Bowe was given MVP honors.
“This was a big deal holding the first-ever softball regions,” said Coach Bill Bell.
It was even bigger with the Mariners moving into first place after a final game against the SoHi Stars that didn’t wrap up until 10:45 p.m. Saturday. “Everybody was pretty exhausted. It was just a really supportive team effort. They kept their spirits up and kept going.”
Homer started the day by losing to the SoHi Stars 16-5 in six innings, but rebounded with an 18-3, three-inning victory over Kodiak. That win brought the Mariners back onto the field with Soldotna, Homer claiming a close 17-16 win in nine innings. With Soldotna suffering its first loss of the double-elimination tournament, the Mariners and Stars were face-to-face once more, with Homer claiming a five-inning, 12-4 win.
Both peninsula teams proceed to this week’s state competition.
“It was very satisfying to beat Soldotna,” said Bell. “The two of us are the strongest teams in the league”
Standing out for the Mariners was the pitching of Annalynn Brown.
“She did a great job,” said Bell. “And Bowe made a great number of defensive moves.”
Homer’s top batters were freshman Kaitlyn Johnson and seniors Elsie Smith and Bowe.
“(Johnson) was right up there as probably the best hitter for us in the tournament,” said Bell.
The team loses four seniors this year: Annali Metz and Malina Fellows, as well as Smith and Bowe. However, Bell anticipates another strong team for the 2018 season.
“We certainly have some strong freshmen and sophomores, and a strong group of eighth graders coming up. And there are a couple of good juniors that didn’t play this year, but I hope will be back next year,” said Bell.
In state championship play at Eagle River, Homer’s first game was against West Valley, with the unbeaten West Valley team scoring a 3-1 win. Friday, the Mariners faced the Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears, who held a 2-0 lead by halftime and then pushed it to a 9-0 before Homer was able to get on the board. Charles Rohr scored the Mariners’ lone goal on a penalty kick in the 62nd minute.
Coach Warren Waldorf, in his 10th year as Homer’s coach, said the team’s biggest challenges were keeping everyone healthy. Both Simon Dye and Dexter Lowe were out Friday to injury, and Rohr was limited by an injury suffered in Thursday’s loss to West Valley.
Getting to state was no small thing for the Mariners, who punched their ticket at last week’s NLC championships with a 2-1 win over SoHi.
“That was an incredible game. We were down 0-1 at the break and then Charles Rohr scored twice in the second half to carry the day and we won the match 2-1. That got us into the state tournament,” said Waldorf. “We were the smallest school at the state championship.”
Oliver Beck shared team captain duties with Rohr during the season.
“I’ve been playing soccer for about as long as I can remember. I like the creativity aspect of it. In soccer, it’s inventive and you’re just making it up as you go along,” said Beck. “It’s definitely a team sport so you need to know everybody pretty well.”
That’s made easier for the Mariner team because most of them grew up involved in Homer’s soccer community. Having Waldorf as a coach also is a plus.
“He knows how to get it done. We’ve just got to do what he tells us to do,” Beck said.
Losing only one senior, Kenzington Cortez, who heads to Gonzaga (Washington) University in the fall, Beck described his team as “seasoned,” but recognized the same is true of other NLC teams.
“Kenai and Soldotna are younger this year. Ketchikan is younger. These are the teams that we struggled with. So, even though we’re getting a little older and more experienced, so are the teams we’ve played against,” he said.
The prospect of going to state this week at Mulcahy Stadium in Anchorage disappeared for the Mariners in Southcentral Conference tournament play in Palmer, with Wasilla taking the tournament title for the fourth straight season. Wasilla’s win was not without challenges, however.
“It was a very competitive division this year,” said Coach Rich Sonnen. “Like all the coaches were saying, Wasilla was definitely the top team, undefeated in the regular season. It was a given they were the best team. But everyone knew the second spot to go to state was up for grabs. We were battling for it.”
In Friday’s game against Kenai, Homer scored a 15-0 victory in five innings, but then suffered a loss to SoHi. In seven innings of play, the Stars took the game, 4-2.
In the Homer-Kenai game, Joe Ravin and Garrett Butcher each had a double and a single for the Mariners, while Seth Adkins was 2 for 3, Doug Dean was 2 for 3, Kyle Wells was 3 for 3 and Mose Hayes added a double. In the Soldotna game, Hayes pitched six innings and yielded four runs on two hits while walking three and striking out two. Butcher was named to the All-Southcentral Conference first team.
For Sonnen, who began as assistant coach in 2010 and is completing his third season as head coach, stressing a team effort is a top priority “and it definitely was this season,” he said.
Atkins had a batting average of 600; Ravin and Butcher each were hitting 417 for the tournament.
“Those three guys were the guys that really got the job done in battling at the plate for us,” he said.
New pitching rules required having more rest time, resulting in the need for more pitchers.
“And they all stood up and did their job: Dean against Colony, Garrett against Kenai, and freshman (Hayes) against Soldotna. They all did great. If we’d beat Soldotna and kept going in the tournament, I had other guys ready to throw for us,” said Sonnen.
Losing only two seniors — Butcher and Woape Huffman — Sonnen said, “That means we’ve got a bunch of guys returning. It looks good for next season.”
McKibben Jackinsky is a freelance writer living in Homer. The Peninsula Clarion also contributed to this story.