The development of Lake Land College softball players includes, among other things, the appreciation for reading a notoriously boring book. It is not an assignment that is met with enthusiasm, yet the end goal is to help create exactly that. The payoff is a saying that’s central to the sustainability of one of junior college softball’s most consistent programs.
Lakers coach Nic Nelson has read Stephen Hawking’s book “A Brief History into Time” eight times. He knows what his players endure when he assigns it as part of his mandatory monthly “tasks” designed to teach lessons and build chemistry. This year, he spared his freshman class and instead assigned a YouTube video about Hawking.
“It is boring, it is tedious, it is monotonous, and you don’t understand half of it,” Nelson said. “But it’s all for that statement at the end of the book. It leads up to that.”
The saying is, of course, “Where there’s life, there’s hope.”
If this season is any evidence, Lake Land has embraced it as well as Nelson could have asked. The Lakers are going to the NJCAA national softball tournament in St. George, Utah after a thrilling run through the Region 24 tournament last week netted them an automatic bid. Lake Land (50-17, 27-7 Great Rivers Athletic Conference) earned a No. 14 seed and will play No. 3 Chipola College Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.
This year marks the program’s eighth trip to the national tournament in the last nine seasons. That consistency is a rarity – Lake Land and Butler County are the only two teams to reach eight of the last nine tournaments. The Lakers went last season, but lost their first two games. In 2016, they recorded their highest finish under Nelson by taking fourth while riding the arm of appropriately named pitcher Emily Oestreich (pronounced oh-STRIKE), who now plays for Illinois.
To get there this season, they needed to believe in Hawking’s words when the Region 24 tournament began on a sour note. Lake Land lost 11-0 to John A. Logan in the opening game, leaving no more room for another loss in the quest to return to Utah.
“I just repeated that saying. I told them, ‘guys, we’re still alive. There’s still hope,” Nelson said. “No matter how bad you think you are, no matter how damaged you think you are, we still have a shot. And the fact that we did the same thing the year before, the girls believed it a little bit.”
Just a few hours after that blowout loss, Lake Land notched a 7-1 win over Olney Central behind a complete game from Abrienne Lee. The next day, the Lakers won a rematch with Logan by erasing a 5-2 deficit after the top of the sixth inning. They scored four times in the bottom of the sixth to take a 6-5 lead, only for Logan to regain it the next inning.
Natalie Gordon, though, smacked a game-tying double in the bottom of the seventh. Delanie Johnson’s two-out double scored Gordon and gave Lake Land an 8-7 walk-off win.
“You don’t like to play like that, but if you want to have excitement and get energized, those are the wins that really get you going,” Nelson said.
Lake Land met GRAC regular-season champion Wabash Valley in the semis and notched a 5-3 victory that set up a title game rematch immediately after. Lake Land dusted the Warriors 13-2 by collecting 22 hits and another complete game from Lee.
“Once we got in that first game and we got that lead, we got excited and the bats came alive,” Nelson said. “It was one of the most satisfying and exciting wins we’ve ever had.”
Defeating Chipola (47-5-1) is another daunting task. The Indians ended the regular season ranked No. 4.
“We got a really bad draw right off the bat,” Nelson said. “We’re picking up a team that’ll be tough to match up with. They’re faster than heck and they’re going to run like deer.”
That doesn’t make them any easier to beat, though. If Lake Land loses, it will drop into the consolation bracket in the double-elimination tournament.
That still offers a path to the title, though.
It’s still life.
“That saying,” Nelson said, “we’re going to use that a lot.”