Although this past weekend didn’t end in a victory, the Homer High School softball team held its own during the state championships in Fairbanks, placing third overall and winning two out of four games. The Mariners lost to Sitka and Ketchikan, but had overwhelming wins against Hutchison and North Pole.
The Homer softball team cannot seem to crack the Southeast code, but the same can be said for most of the state.
The Mariners fought their way to the second-chance bracket semifinal Saturday at the Alaska School Activities Association state softball tournament at South Davis Park Complex in Fairbanks, but lost a close 7-6 game to eventual state runner-up Ketchikan.
Homer went 2-2 for the weekend, splitting a pair of games Friday and Saturday. On the opening day of the weekend, Homer lost its first game with Sitka 9-1, but rallied back to claim a 14-9 slugfest over Hutchison. Saturday, the Mariners clobbered North Pole 10-1 before losing to Ketchikan.
The Kings advanced to the state final against Sitka, but came up short for the championship with a 14-6 loss to the Wolves. Sitka won its fifth small-schools state crown in the last six years.
The result left Homer with a third-place finish overall, the third-straight year the Mariners have finished with the bronze.
“The girls showed an incredible amount of heart, and I couldn’t have asked for better,” said Homer Coach Bill Bell.
Although they didn’t come away from the weekend with a state championship title, the Mariners did earn several accolades to be proud of. All coaches unanimously chose Maggie LaRue, senior, as player of the year for all conferences. Four out of the top ten all-conference players were Mariners, including Kyla Pitzman, Larsen Fellows, McKi Needham and Pam Jantzi. The Mariners also received the sportsmanship award during the tournament.
Overall, Coach Bell says he was very pleased with how hard the girls fought during the state championships.
“I was a little nervous going into the championships because we didn’t really have any comeback games this season, we kind of coasted through the conference. This group of girls hung together, supported each other and basically just came fighting,” said Bell.
Homer ends its season at 16-5 overall.
“I’m really happy with that,” Bell said. “It was a good season.”
LaRue hit two home runs Saturday — one in each game — to power the Mariners, and the recently anointed Northern Lights Conference player of the year hit 3 for 4 with three RBI against Ketchikan.
Homer nearly pulled off the miraculous comeback against Ketchikan in the semifinal, as the Mariners found themselves trailing 7-1 with two outs and one to go in the bottom of the seventh inning.
Six hits and one error later, Homer had clawed its way back with five runs with the tying run on third and the winning run on second.
The rally began when Kayla Stafford bunted and reached base on a throwing error. Elsie Smith then hit a hard ground ball to right field that brought Stafford in to score, and was followed by a double by Mary Hana Bowe that put pinch runner Izabelle Hagge on third. LaRue then stepped up and smacked a fly ball double to left field that scored two runs. Riley Walls then hit a single, and McKi Needham connected on a double to center field that scored LaRue and Walls.
After Kyla Pitzman’s line drive single advanced Needham to third, Homer had closed the gap to a single run.
“We were thinking, it’s time to go, we wanted to be dramatic,” Bell quipped.
Unfortunately, senior Larsen Fellows’ line drive ended the rally.
Homer took the first lead of the game in the bottom of the third after LaRue homered to left field, but the Kings answered back with all seven runs in the top of the fifth. Leesa Murphy scored on a fielder’s choice grounder by Kalleigh Krosse, and another run scored on a grounder by Ruaro, giving Ketchikan a 2-1 lead.
Walls and Pitzman ended up going 2 for 4, and Needham added two RBIs.
Needham also went the distance on the mound, pitching seven innings with 10 hits, five earned runs and three strikeouts. Kassi Montero earned the win for Ketchikan, going the final three innings with seven hits, zero earned runs and zero walks.
“We had some Sitka folks that told us they were getting a bit worried (watching),” Bell said. “They could tell that (Needham) was really zoned in and doing well.”
In the first game on Saturday, Homer started fast with four runs in the first inning and six in the second for a 10-0 lead. Overall, Homer outhit North Pole 12-5.
Mary Hana Bowe led Homer at the dish, hitting 3 for 3 with four RBIs, while Needham went 3 for 3 with two runs, Pitzman went 1 for 3 with two runs and three RBIs, and LaRue hit 2 for 3 with two runs.
Needham earned the win pitching with three innings of work, giving up four hits, no walks and zero runs. Pam Jantzi cleaned up with two innings, giving up one hit, one run and one walk.
Bell lamented that he will be losing five quality seniors next year — LaRue, Fellows, Pitzman, Jantzi and Jenna Dragoo — but added that he is confident in the upcoming players from the Homer Junior Little League ranks.
“If anything, I think we’re showing a bit more parity every year with other teams’ pitchers,” Bell said. “We sometimes get so intimidated by the Anchorage pitchers, thinking they’re so fast, but they don’t have anything we don’t have.
“I think we can do this again.”
In Friday’s first game, Sitka banged out 17 hits to Homer’s five, but the game remained a scoreless staredown until the fifth inning, when Elle Gray grounded out to Mariners shortstop Riley Walls, which scored Sidney Riggs for the first run of the game.
Following a scoreless half inning for Homer at the bottom of the fifth, Riggs opened the floodgates in the sixth with a grounder that brought Kalene Koeling in to score, and was followed by a big double by Gray that plated Riggs and Hailey Denkinger, putting Sitka ahead 4-0. From there, Meaghan Way and Kyla Young hit two fly doubles. Ultimately, the inning ended with six runs by Sitka and Homer facing a daunting task.
Gray led the Wolves with five RBIs on 3-for-5 hitting, while Denkinger went 4 for 4. Overall, Denkinger and Gray combined for nine hits.
Izabelle Hagge scored Homer’s lone run in the bottom of the sixth with an RBI single from Pitzman.
Pitzman finished 2 for 3 with an RBI to lead the Homer offense. Maggie LaRue, Kelly Liebers and Walls each added a hit apiece.
Zoe Krupa earned the win in the pitching circle with a complete game, giving up five hits, one earned run and striking out seven.
McKi Needham went 5 2-3 innings for Homer with 16 hits, five earned runs, two walks and one strikeout. Pam Jantzi finished up with one hit, two runs, two walks and one strikeout.
In the second game Friday, runs came much quicker. Homer took a 3-2 lead over Hutchison after one inning with help from a line drive double by Needham that scored LaRue and Walls. Needham then was brought home by a bunt by Fellows. Homer added a run in the second and four in the third to grab an 8-2 lead.
The Mariners expanded their lead to 11-3 at one point, but the Hawks answered with three runs apiece in the fifth and sixth innings.
After Hutch closed the gap to 12-9 with a three-run homer by Duffield in the bottom of the sixth, Jacobs grounded out to end the inning.
In the final inning, Needham grounded out to bring LaRue in to score, and Walls scored on a wild pitch.
The leading hitter of the 28-hit game — which included nine extra-base hits — was Larsen Fellows, who fell one home run short of the cycle with two singles, a double and a triple to end up 4 for 4 with two RBIs. LaRue hit 3 for 3, Walls went 2 for 5, and Needham went 2 for 5 with three RBIs.
On defense, Needham earned the win by going the distance, giving up 14 hits, seven earned runs, one walk and four strikeouts.