USA/Junior Olympic softball tourney helps players sharpen skills

Central Peninsula Fastpitch Softball hosted the USA/Junior Olympic softball tournament at Steve Shearer Memorial Ball Park on Saturday and Sunday in Kenai.

Bob Frates, the manager of operations for Central Peninsula Fastpitch Softball, said the organization has been going for five years now.

“I just started it to give our local players more opportunity for time on the field,” Frates said. “In a high school season, you blink and you miss it, and there was nothing after that.

“If we want to grow softball and promote softball, we need to create a program where they can just get more time on the field. We’ve got a winter program, too, where we’re in the rec center once a week, so the girls get a lot of reps.”

Frates said the program is made up of players from Kenai and Soldotna.

The program has resulted in some success at the high school level. In 2023, Kenai Central earned its first state berth. This season, Soldotna earned its first state berth since 2017.

“The fruits of our labor are paying off, so to speak,” Frates said. “What I see is, in the spring, my high school girls this year were just light years ahead of where we were last year at the same time, mostly because the players take advantage of winter workouts and play summer ball.”

The program is not a guarantee of success, however, because the rest of the state is taking advantage of the same opportunities and getting better.

In 2023, Kenai was 0-4 at the Division II state tournament, and Soldotna had the same mark this season.

In the U12 tourney Saturday and Sunday, the AK Glacier Bears from the Matanuska-Susitna valleys were first, while the AK Krush of Anchorage was second and Arsenal of Eagle River was third. The Homer Tsunami and Riptide of the central peninsula were the bottom teams in the tournament.

In the U14/16 tourney, the U14 Glacier Bears won the title over the U14 Krush. The U16 Riptide lost to the Krush in the final game of the playback bracket. The U16 Tsunami and U14 Riptide were the bottom two teams in the tournament.

Frates said the rest of the state is setting a pace that makes the three or so tournaments Central Peninsula Fastpitch Softball attends per year very important.

“Hopefully, we’ll get there,” Frates said. “We’ve got a great group of girls at the U12 level and U14 that are coming up through the ranks.

“They do a good job.”

Homer High School coach Bill Bell also said the summer program is key to his high school program. In 2022, the Mariners clinched their 21st state appearance in 22 years and won a fifth straight Northern Lights Conference tournament.

Kodiak has won the NLC the past two years, while the Mariners have not qualified for state.

Bill Bell is the head coach of the Homer Tsunami program, while Hannah Zook is administrative coach.

He said the Tsunami program has been going in various forms since 2006. In the last three years, he said participation had really picked up and Bell said that’s necessary to keep up with the rest of the state.

“A lot of folks come into high school and have never played softball before, so really we’re just building up this farm team,” Bell said.

Frates thanked the umpires and everybody else who helped put on the tournament.

“It’s just an incredible amount of work,” he said.

Blakeley Jorgensen of AK Riptide (U14) pitches against AK Krush (14) at the USA/Junior Olympic softball tournament at Steve Shearer Memorial Ball Park on Saturday, June 15, 2024, in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)