By Clark Fair
The hard-luck story of the Float-N-Fish team in the Cooper Landing Community Softball Tournament went almost all the way back to the tourney’s inaugural season in 1995, but it ended decisively last June 7 when Float-N-Fish defeated Mountain Madness 6-5 in the championship game.
Float-N-Fish had defeated Moose Pass, Alaska Wildland Adventures, Princess Lodge and Mountain Madness in quick succession to open the double-elimination slo-pitch tournament. Then, atop the winner’s bracket, Float-N-Fish had to await the survivor of the loser’s bracket, which turned out to be Mountain Madness.
Formerly a Forest Service-based team from the Moose Pass/Crown Point area, Mountain Madness then defeated Float-N-Fish 7-4 to force a decisive final game.
The title, and the traveling trophy that goes with it, marked the first time Float-N-Fish had won more than a single game in the tournament, and it was emblematic of the way that the wealth (i.e., victories and titles) has been spread around in this event, which takes place in the decidedly rural environs of the upper Kenai River valley.
Since the 10-day, 10-team tournament began on the field adjacent to the Cooper Landing Community Hall, no team has won more than two titles.
Float-N-Fish, on the other hand, had struggled to win at all until 2009.
The first incarnation of Float-N-Fish began in 1996, when the original owner of Cooper Landing Floating & Fishing, Howard Mulanax, first sponsored a team. The Float-N-Fish team played until 2002, when Mulanax retired from guiding and allowed the team to fold with an all-time mark of five wins and 14 losses, which included two winless tournament appearances.
Two of Mulanax’s former players, Heather and John Pearson, took over the guiding business in 2005, renamed it Kenai River Float-N-Fish, and re-started the team — with similar results, at first: three straight winless tourney appearances before a single win in 2008 and the stunning championship run in 2009.
Heather Pearson credited continuity, proper beer consumption and the team’s motivational player/coach, Deanna Hoy, for the sudden success.
“We really had been practicing a lot, and it just finally started coming together for us. Once you start playing with the same people for long enough, you just kind of jell together, and we just sort of became the well-oiled machine that we had been trying to be.
“We also got our beer-and-softball ratio dialed in a little bit better. There were years when we maybe had too much beer, and there were years when we didn’t have any beer, and neither of those strategies worked well for us as a team. So we had a few before the game, you know, to loosen ourselves up, and then we did fine.”
Although occasional softball contests between residents of Cooper Landing and Moose Pass go back to at least the 1960s — when teams would compete along the shore of Trail Lake, near the Moose Pass school or on Cooper Landing’s old rock-strewn field — no official tournament took place until 15 years ago.
According to tournament founder Mayme Ohnemus, the event grew out of a need to raise money and a desire to bring closer together the mountain communities of the central Kenai Peninsula.
“In 1994, I was asked to come up with a fundraiser for the Cooper Landing Ambulance and Rescue Squad to help with the expenses of the Health Fair,” Ohnemus wrote in 1997. “Remembering back to the good times we had playing ball, I decided on a softball tournament.
“Moose Pass was a natural choice, as they have always invited us to their Summer Solstice Festival. Our schools have been close, sometimes combining to make up teams for soccer, basketball and Little League baseball. Our ambulance squad works with the Moose Pass EMTs. I also thought of Summit Lake because they are our neighbors, and just because we like ’em.”
Over the years, teams have sported mostly sponsor-centered monikers, including Frontier Lumber, Gwin’s, Bean Creakers, Wildman, Interior Telephone, Avalanche Acres and Alaska Rivers Company. And all of them have come to play in one of the most scenic venues in the state.
From home plate, a batter can look north across the third-base line to the high rocky ridge that marks the summit of the Slaughter Gulch trail. To the east, in straightaway centerfield, stands Langille Mountain, usually dotted with Dall sheep throughout the summer.
To the south, just over the first-base line, run the turquoise waters of the upper Kenai, and beyond that towers the craggy 4,400-foot Cecil Rhode Mountain. Behind the backstop, the Kenai River valley stretches westward for more than 10 miles before it veers sharply south around Hideout Hill and follows the river canyon toward Skilak Lake.
The view itself would be worth the price of admission, but the games are free to the public and generally well-attended, even in most inclement weather. Soldotna’s Drew O’Brien has been a regular attendee for years and can usually be found sitting with Cooper Landing’s Will Troyer near the top of the small grandstand.
O’Brien spends much of his summers delivering firewood to residents of Cooper Landing.
“I haul a load of wood up there and dump the wood off and go to the games and then go home,” he said.
Since two games are played each night, starting at 7 p.m., O’Brien usually gets home around 10:30 or 11 p.m. if he stays for both contests.
“I’ve been to lots of ballgames in Anchorage, and it’s not like going to games in Anchorage at all,” O’Brien said. “It’s really unique in that everybody there knows everybody else, and it’s more of a family atmosphere than it is a baseball game. The people that play in Cooper Landing — not only do they play ball together, but most of them live in the same community, and they work all day together.”
Fans typically fill the grandstand or watch from inside or on top of vehicles parked just beyond the chain-link outfield fence. Some fans back their pickup trucks near the fence, open the tailgates and set up lawn chairs on the truck beds for optimum viewing and comfort. When they’re feeling peckish, they amble over to the concession stand for hamburgers, hot dogs and sodas — or to the beer keg for a cold beverage.
In one of the early years of the tournament, the Cooper Landing Parent Advisory Committee ran the concessions and sold 594 hamburgers and 312 hot dogs, among other goodies. Their 10-day take was $2,238.
From the beginning, concessions have been a moneymaker at the tournament. Dan Michels, the current tournament coordinator and the general manager for Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge, said that funds raised during the tourney — including the $75 entry fee for each team — have aided numerous community and school-related enterprises.
At the same time, the tournament has benefited tremendously from the volunteer efforts of residents. Three boys seeking to become Eagle Scouts, for instance, did their final projects to improve the ball field. Austin McDonald worked on the bleachers and scoring table; Grant Gephardt erected the flagpole and built a wildflower rock garden; and Dustin Dreifuerst completed the picnic tables under the pavilion.
Dave Westerman, who served as tournament coordinator between Ohnemus and Michels, also worked hard to improve the facilities, helping to arrange for fencing, hydro-seeding and regular watering of the field.
As a result of such efforts, spectators flock to the games, particularly when the sun comes out. But the games go on, rain or shine.
In fact, no game has ever been canceled or even postponed because of weather. As it is, Michels said, it’s difficult enough to schedule games around the frenetic activities of summer employees in the Cooper Landing and Moose Pass areas, so the games go on. “We have played in some absolute misery,” Michels said.
“I’ve sat through a couple of games where I was the only spectator,” O’Brien said. “And the players were all drowned rats. I mean, holy Moses, it was pouring down. The texture of the infield is, when it’s really wet — we’re talking about wet-wet — and a player goes around first to second, and everything’s fine, and then he heads around second to third, and right there it is just slicker than slick — and every single player falls. Down like a rock.”
In the championship game in the first tournament, Alaska Rivers Company defeated the Cooper Landing Merchants 11-10 in the only tourney with a different format — eight teams, three days, single-elimination. Because more teams wanted in on the action, the field expanded. Because of scheduling problems, the time frame expanded. And because almost everyone hated single-elimination, the rules expanded.
In that first tournament, players from losing teams were allowed to join teams still playing. Gary Galbraith’s ARC team became notorious for grabbing the best talent on its way to winning the title. Now there is a special method of acquiring outside players, and a set minimum of women who must be on each coed team — and special “Cooper Landing Rules” penalize teams that go under the minimum.
Spectators new to the tournament may notice a few local twists to the standard American Softball Association rulebook. But all rule variations are done with the objective of “making the games more enjoyable for all,” Ohnemus said.
New rules have not kept teams or fans away. Ohnemus said that she sees people at the games that she rarely spots throughout the rest of the year, and some folks come every night.
“There’s one gal, she told her family, ‘You want to eat the next two weeks, you’re gonna eat hot dogs and hamburgers at the game,’ because she wasn’t cooking,” Ohnemus said. “And she has never cooked during the tournament since it started because she brings her whole family over and they eat there. I think there’s quite a few who do that.”
This year’s Cooper Landing Community Softball Tournament begins Friday at 7 p.m. at the Dave Young Memorial Field next to the Community Hall on Bean Creek Road.