It was a busy week for the Lake Land softball last week. After winning the Region 24 title and punching their ticket to the NJCAA Division I National tournament last Monday for the sixth time in seven seasons, the players got right back into the swing of things academically since it was a finals week at the college.
By Friday, all of the players were done with their finals and could turn their focus back to softball as they were on the field practicing. By Saturday, the team was off to St. George, Utah, to prepare for their upcoming games at the NJCAA tournament. On Sunday, the Lady Lakers found out their 54-12 record earned them the No. 11 seed out of 16 teams. Their first game is at 8 p.m. on Wednesday against Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, the sixth seed, which is 42-8 on the season.
"There's just so much stuff going on right now," Lake Land coach Nic Nelson said. "There's a lot of stuff to do. Once we get them out there, Sunday and Monday (there was) nothing but softball, nothing to distract them. We (double worked out) both days. Once we get out there and see all of the teams, they will get serious.
"It's been a great run. It might be our sixth time out there, but it's our freshman's first time out there. I will tell you with everything that's gone on this year, I am probably as excited about this year as I was for the first one. It's good to be back there."
If Lake Land wins on Wednesday, the Lady Lakers play at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday. If they lose, they play at 4 p.m. on Thursday. It's a double-elimination tournament.
Lake Land sophomore and Shelbyville native Madison Boone said the team is ready for the national tournament.
"I actually have pretty high expectations of our team right now," Boone said. "I think we will do pretty well out there. I think we've faced very good competition so far, so I think we have a very good shot at doing well there. I think we just have to come out ready to play and give it everything we've got."
As usual, Nelson put together a challenging schedule for the Lady Lakers, which hopefully prepared them for the national tournament. In the fall semester, Lake Land faced Ball State, Indiana State, Illinois State, Eastern Illinois, Louisville, Kentucky and Purdue. In the spring, LLC went to a number of tournaments and wound up facing two teams are in the national tournament - Wallace State (D-I) and LSU Eunice (D-II).
In the Great Rivers Athletic Conference season, Lake Land went 2-2 against nationally ranked Wabash Valley and then beat the Warriors in the Region 24 tournament. John A. Logan was receiving consideration in the poll for much of the season and Lake Land went 3-1 against them in the regular season. Then LLC beat John A. Logan two out of three times in the Region 24 tournament, including for the title.
"The spring season for us ... that's why we play those teams so we are ready for them," Nelson said. "We don't come back and see the competition until the end of the year with Logan and Wabash. That's good to have that. We will see. You just have to go out there and what the girls see in the preseason, (those team) really aren't much better than we are and we are as good as they are."
At times during the season, Nelson hasn't been completely satisfied with the team's offense. Still, the Lady Lakers scored the third-most runs in NJCAA D-I (598), had the second-most hits (727), the third-most doubles (173) and the fourth most RBIs (513).
Six Lake Land players have driven in at least 50 RBIs or more, led by Tegan Murphy's 64. Six players have scored at least 50 or more runs, led by Sam Valentine's 93 runs. Valentine also leads the team with a .487 batting average and 30 stolen bases.
"I wasn't happy with the offense from time to time because of certain games or individual performances," Nelson said. "We left too many people on base. When you look at the offense as a whole, we had a really good year. We set a ton of records this year. Our hitting was better than what I complained about at times, but I'm always trying to win every game and I look at everything hard like that."
Boone said the bats have to stay hot going into the national tournament.
"Just get ourselves pumped up and that helps our bats," Boone said. "We have seen a lot better pitching than we did last year, so I think we are more prepared."
In the circle, Lake Land has one of the best pitchers in the nation with Emily Oestreich. She's seventh in the nation in games started with 32 and fourth in wins with 31. Her 25 completes games rank sixth and her 15 shutouts are the most in the nation. She also leads the nation with 264 strikeouts and is fourth in the nation with 9.66 strikeouts per game. Oestreich's earned run average sits at 1.50.
Mattoon native Katelyn Fisher stepped up as the No. 2 starter this season and has an ERA of 2.63 to go along with 80 strikeouts in 127 1/3 innings. She's only walked 16 batters and has 16 wins, including 11 complete games, in 30 appearances (23 starts) this season.
"If you look at the stats nationally, Emily is up there at number one or two, and we are comfortable with Fish coming in and throwing games," Nelson said. "Last year Emily let the intimidation get to her a little bit and this year, she has more experience. It's like the regional tournament, get that first game out of the way. If you have a really good first game, it sets the one for the whole tournament."