In his seven seasons at Lake Land College, Nic Nelson's teams have accomplished a lot, including qualifying for the national tournament in six of the past seven years. But the Lady Lakers broke their own glass ceiling this past week at the NJCAA Division I National Tournament.
Lake Land went into the tournament as the No. 11 seed out of 16 teams, but the Lady Lakers quickly showed they were much better than their seed by pulling off two upsets in the first two rounds.
By the end of the tournament, Lake Land was not only a top 10 team, the Lady Lakers cracked the top five. Even though they lost to Florida Southwestern State in the consolation bracket, the Lady Lakers finished the NJCAA National Tournament in fourth place, the highest any Lake Land team has ever finished.
The fourth-place Lady Lakers finished the season with 57 wins, which is the most in the program's history. Nelson wanted to make sure another record was recognized, too.
"We had the highest GPA in the history of Lake Land softball, between a 3.45 and 3.5 for the year. That's the number one thing," Nelson said. "Number two, we got a fourth place finish, the highest ever for the program. Number three, 57 wins in the most in the program's history. Number four, seven national tournaments."
Lake Land went to the national tournament under then head coach Denny Thorneburg, who is currently Lake Land's pitching coach.
Plus Lake Land earned another first. Shortstop Kendra Gengenbacher became the first Lady Laker to earn All-National Tournament honors.
"I told her after she won it, it's always fun to watch someone who blooms during the tournament," Nelson said. "It started at the regional tournament and then continued at nationals. She had some big home runs and made some outstanding plays."
It took a bit for the fourth place finish to sink in for Nelson since he wanted to win the whole tournament.
"The girls can tell you I didn't seem happy because you want to win it all," Nelson said. "You come out here to finish number one. After I had half a day to chill and relax, it set in and fourth is really good. It's the best any team at Lake Land has done. We started so many freshmen so we have a great foundation for next year.
"Everybody is just going through the year and the stuff they went through and now they are laughing and enjoying it and how fun it really was and we all can't believe how fast the season went. ... They turned the record books upside down and the GPA is really big for us."
Freshman Britt Remmers said the team is still in awe over what they accomplished.
"That's pretty great, (fourth place)," Remmers said. "We came here with a goal and never thought we would get this far and we did really good. We are really proud."
The 11-seed didn't sit well with Lake Land and the team made it known right away in the first game by scoring 11 runs against Northeastern Oklahoma A&M. Then Lake Land put 16 runs on the board against Florida Southwestern State in the next round. Then in the fourth game, Lake Land scored 11 runs to eliminate Howard.
"This team has the ability to turn it on," Nelson said. "We were a little ticked off that they were seeded 11th and we wanted to prove something. When we are clicking with the bats and you have Emily and (Fisher) pitching, we can run with anyone."
Even though the offense set many records this season in the program's history, the pitching combo of Emily Oestreich and Katelyn Fisher helped Lake Land get as far as it did.
"We wouldn't have been at the national tournament this year or last year without those two," Nelson said. "We've had some really good pitchers and have been known for pitching because of Denny. The reason I get people to look at us is because Denny is the pitching coach. It just makes it a lot easier to coach with a pitching coach of his caliber."
This Lake Land team has a number of freshmen who made an impact this season. Sophomores Samantha Valentine, Tegan Murphy, Madison Boone, Oestreich and Fisher were the key sophomores, but a number of freshmen filled out the rest of the roles. It gives Lake Land a solid core going into next season.
"I think our freshman class is really talented and the sophomores really got it out of us," Remmers said. "We came in as scared freshmen who didn't know what to do. They made us develop into the players we are today. Without our sophomores, we wouldn't be where we are."
Now that the season is officially over, Nelson is starting to turn the focus to next season after Sunday's banquet. But he will remember just how special the team this season was.
"I said something to Denny during the Wabash Valley game at regions," Nelson said. "I liked the way we matched up with them and I felt comfortable and that's something bold and brash that I only told him. But I felt really good when we played Wabash. I felt pretty good we were going to take a good shot at it this year."