In an abnormal time, a burgeoning youth softball program in Homer grew into some normalcy in its second season this summer.
The USA Softball sanctioned team Tsunami, a fast-pitch softball program, recently ended its summer season after a trip to a state tournament in Anchorage.
Bill Bell and Hannah Zook, the varsity and junior varsity softball coaches for Homer High School, respectively, have also been coaching the Tsunami. While the name was originally used for a team in 2007 made up of players from Anchorage, Kodiak and Homer, this most recent iteration is an attempt to revitalize interest in softball below the high school level. It was created with Mary Jo Cambridge of the Alaska Training Room.
The Kenai-Soldotna area also has a USA Softball sanctioned program, the AK Riptide. This program can run both age 16 and under (16U) and 14 and under (14U) teams. The Tsunami program has an 18 and under (18U) team.
After being created last year, Zook said in an email that this is the first season the program has really been able to dive into USA Softball, “which really opens us up to multiple tournaments against various teams up north and possibly at some point down in the states.”
Tsunami played 16 games this season and finished with a 7-9 record. The program boasted 20 athletes this year ranging in age from 8 to 19. Next year, Zook said they hope to add a 14U team and possibly even a 12U team if the participation and volunteers can support it.
At the state tournament held in Anchorage earlier this month, Zook said the team had some of its best games there. Tsunami started out strong with a 16-3 win over the Cougars on Friday, July 31, before losing 4-1 to the Arctic Heat18 later that day.
The second day of the tournament, Tsunami defeated the Kodiak Warriors 14-8 before losing their next two games (0-10 against the Krush18 and 15-3 against the Arctic Heat18) and being eliminated.
“I think this was a good, successful start,” Bell said of the season.
Practice for the team started at the end of May, with some modifications and mitigation plans in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Bell, who is a doctor at Homer Medical Center, said he actually paused the practices and season a few times when the positive case numbers started getting too high for comfort.
If players and coaches were within 6 feet of others, they were wearing masks. Athletes were spaced out, and that spacing was increased when they were exercising, Zook said.
“As far as practices go, we were still able to do quite a bit of the different drills than we normally would,” she said.
The challenges of having to keep players spaced out and safe actually ended up creating a few new drills for the team, she said.
“Everybody was on board, though, of accepting all the changes and working with us as we learned how to better prepare,” Zook said of the COVID-19 mitigation plans for the season.
When it came to traveling for games, Zook said the coaches left it mainly up to the players to arrange rides and lodging. Coaches provided rides when they were needed, but limited the number of people who could travel in one vehicle, she said.
Of this season in particular, Bell said he really wanted to provide an opportunity for some of the Homer High School varsity softball players who lost their season this past spring when schools and sports were closed down due to the pandemic. He especially wanted to provide the chance to play again for the seniors who graduated, who missed out on what would have been their final season.
About half the high school team ended up playing with Tsunami this season, Bell said. Zook said this also included a 2019 graduate who fit into the age group and was eligible to play.
This created a situation in which the older, seasoned players were mentoring the younger girls, Bell said.
“I thought they did an incredible job mentoring,” Zook said. “As well as the younger ones raising to the level that our older ones were at.”
She described the courage it takes for an 11- or 12-year old to stare down an 18- or 19-year-old pitcher and and try to make contact with the ball. Beyond gaining skills, Zook said the program’s younger participants gained confidence this year.
Zook said the players enjoyed their trips to Anchorage, and used the away games as opportunities to learn from playing more experienced teams that practice year round.
“We took every loss to our advantage in the long run,” she said.
Zook said the Tsunami athletes are hard workers and “had a blast” this season. They’re excited for what next year has in store. Bell said he hopes to continue growing interest in youth softball in Homer by moving more into the USA Softball program. This could possibly include getting involved with middle school softball programs from other parts of the state, he said, and maybe even revitalizing a middle school program in Homer.
Tsunami had their last scheduled game against AK Riptide on Wednesday in Kenai.