MATTOON — The Lake Land College softball program is no stranger to sending its players to the next level. The constant success the program achieves year-in and year-out draws the eyes of many colleges from NCAA Division I to NAIA. This season was no different.
College coaches had plenty of time to scout Lake Land's players this season as the Lady Lakers advanced to the NJCAA Division I tournament and finished in fourth place, the highest placing in the program's history. Lake Land finished with a 57-14 record.
As a result, seven Lake Land softball players from the spring signed to play at the next level - pitcher Emily Oestreich, the University of Illinois; Samantha Valentine, Middle Tennessee State; Madison Boone, Western Illinois University; Tegan Murphy, Wright State; Katelyn Fisher, the University of Indianapolis; Bailey Gowin, Union College; and Chloe Wigington, Southeastern Oklahoma State University.
In total, eight players from the 2016-17 season signed at the next level. Pitcher Anna Albaugh was actually the first one to sign in the fall semester and played at the University of Omaha this past spring.
"With the amount of people you have moving on to the next level, that has to tell you a lot about the program," Nelson said. "We are pretty proud of the kids to get to where they want to get. As much as I say we have a lot to do with it, they worked really, really hard and that has a lot to do with it."
Getting to the national tournament isn't the only way Nelson gets his players exposure to college coaches. There's the recruiting showcase that's streamed on Lakerball.net. Nelson puts together a fall schedule that features D-I schools from power conferences. Plus the spring schedule features tournaments against top-notch competition.
"It's really everything. It's not our job to get our kids to the next level, but we want to," Nelson said. "It starts with you have to have talented kids and having a season where you can win with them and get them looks. The skills live feed is probably the number one thing that we do."
Lake Land could've had nine players move on, but Audrey Casey decided to forgo an opportunity to play at the next level and will continue her academic studies at the University of Missouri.
"She had the ability to move on. Detroit Mercy and a school in Florida had interest, but she wanted to spend her time on education," Nelson said. "She helped our team a lot and is a really tremendous student. She is a big part of our tradition here."
Oestreich had some of the most interest of any player this season. As a freshman, pitched 188 1/3 innings and struck out 276 batters and had a 1.90 earned run average. This past season, she struck out 274 batters in 211 1/3 innings and had a 1.76 ERA. The California native stayed in Illinois with the decision to pitch for the Illini.
"She had a lot of offers. I was stunned a bit because she had an offer from a school in California," Nelson said. "She really liked what she saw up at Illinois and as soon as she made the visit, it was over. She is close and we can see her play and we are going to try and get them on the schedule. She is a talent and we wish her well."
Valentine was one of the top bats for the Lake Land offense the past two seasons. The second baseman batted .444 as freshman with 81 runs scored, 44 RBIs and 39 stolen bases. As a sophomore, Valentine batted .476 with 98 runs scored, six home runs, 57 RBIs, 10 triples and 32 stolen bases. She will play at Middle Tennessee State next season.
"Here's a girl that had nothing for offers out of high school," Nelson said. "She came in her at 5-foot-3, but she can hit the ball over the fence, she can bunt and she played hurt much of her time here. You would've never known it. She shows up and gives everything she's got. She was so excited with all of the offers she had. She had Texas Tech and a school in North Carolina, but she fell in love with Middle Tennessee. She's earned everything she's got and we are pretty happy for her."
Shelbyville grad Boone batted .312 as a freshman with four home runs, 39 runs scored and 29 RBIs. The third baseman/first baseman took a big step forward this season and batted .430 with 10 home runs, 58 runs scored and 61 RBIs. She will be a Leatherneck.
"Madison is a girl that really didn't have anything out of high school and her dream school was Western Illinois," Nelson said. "She comes here, works hard and she got several schools that looked at her. Western came in late and that was her dream. It was great to see her hit that dream."
After batting .437 with seven home runs and 41 RBIs as a freshman, Murphy turned into the top run-producer for Lake Land this season with 71 RBIs, 10 home runs, 56 runs scored and a .425 average. The outfielder/designated hitter continues her career at Wright State.
"She's been dealing with a shoulder injury all year," Nelson said. "She's a left-handed power hitter and to see her work through the pain and achieve this, it's a pretty big deal."
Fisher, a Mattoon grad, had offers from D-I schools but loved her visit with the University of Indianapolis, a D-II. Fisher had a 1.82 ERA in 50 innings as a freshman. This past season, Fisher was Lake Land's No. 2 starter and had a 2.85 ERA in 137 2/3 innings. She only walked 18 batters.
"Katelyn is a great kid from a great family. Her parents are great. She had two to three offers and you don't always have to go with D-I. There's more to it than that and she looked at all of the angles," Nelson said. "She fell in love with Indy and that is the way to go. She is using softball to get that degree and I'm really proud of her and where she has ended up and I am happy for her family."
Gowin, a second baseman/outfielder, batted .341 as a freshman and drove in 18 runs. As a sophomore, Gowin batted .262 with eight RBIs and will move on to Union College at the NAIA level.
"We had three girls down there this last year and they enjoyed the experience and liked the coaches," Nelson said. "The coaches are really excited about her and she will have a dramatic impact as a batter and at second. It will be fun to see how she grows down there."
Technically, Wigington already moved on to the next level since the England native is already a member of the England National softball team. The third baseman drove in nine runs this past season and competed in the NJCAA home run derby. She just committed to Southeast Oklahoma State University, a D-II school.
"She came in here and she can play, she wouldn't be getting offers if she couldn't play," Nelson said. "She had several opportunities right after the season but she had to get back to play with the National team. They were touring Europe and she was the MVP in a tournament in Italy. She will hit really. We are going to miss her smile and laugh and she has a really strong personality."
Now Nelson moves on to the 2017-18 team with the freshman ready to be on campus and he is working on his next recruiting class. He hopes to continue the tradition of having a number of players move on to the next level.
"I tell them they are getting a great education at Lake Land, but the main reason we move kids on, we work really hard at it," Nelson said. "People don't realize that when someone comes in and goes to Illinois, that's a feather in our cap. In the end, it's about what the kids want. We want to help the kids reach that goal and we can reach that if we all win. Lake Land is a great place to go to school."