MATTOON — The road to the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II women's championship is to start for the Lake Land women Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. against Danville Area Community College at Laker Field house in the region 24 tournament.
If the Lady Lakers, who enter with a 23-7 record win, they play at 4 p.m. Saturday at Danville's Mary Miller Gymnasium in the semifinals with the championship set for 2 p.m. Sunday at Danville. The champion is to participate in the national tournament at North Arkansas College in Harrison, Ark.
Lake Land is currently the No. 15 team in the nation and beat DACC, a team that is 3-20, 77-32 on Nov. 28.
Last season the Lady Lakers reached the Region 24 championship game before falling to Illinois Central College 64-53. Lake Land finished 22-11 last year.
"A lot of us played a lot of minutes as freshmen," said Jackson. "Being able to work with each other and knowing how we are going to play was important. A lot of teams have one or two sophomores. We have half the team that is sophomores and that is exciting. We reached the region championship game last year and hopefully this year we will get past that and go to Nationals."
Two of the six players for Lake Land are sophomores including Mattoon graduate Avery Jackson and Charleston graduate Aislinn Parish. The other sophomores are Ayah Burnett, Haley Gregg, Jamie Sandschafer and Gabrielle Staub.
Parish, who is studying physical therapy, said this is it for her basketball career. She does plan to go on to a four-year college or university just not play basketball, while Jackson is unsure.
"Aislinn brings energy and a positive attitude every day she comes to practice or a game," said Lake Land coach Dave Johnson. "She has been a good point guard for the two years."
Johnson said both Parish and Jackson play terrific defense.
"They are very tough defenders and are willing to take a charge," said Johnson. "They are both willing to step in and take contact and they both are more of a vocal leader which is the kind of personality I want out of the point guard."
As for Jackson, "Give Avery all of the credit," said Johnson. "She is a team player, takes quality shots and makes good passes. There is a lot more to her game than scoring. She would like to go down as a good all-around player, who happened to be a 1,000 point scorer as well."
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Jackson, a shooting guard, went over the 1,000 point mark earlier this year in a 74-67 loss to Wabash Valley College Jan. 9 at Lake Land. She is just the third player to accomplish the milestone in Johnson's 21 years as a coach.
"I didn't know I was close until they told me I was close," said Jackson. "It definitely surprised me. It took me three years in high school to get it. The thing people don't look at is the back-door passes and kick-outs. A lot of the points were because of them and they are just as much a part of the honor as it is for me."
Jackson is 12th in the nation in free throw percentage at 81.8 percent and averages 19.9 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game and is shooting 51.5 percent from the field (49th in the nation). She is 12th in the nation in field goals with 219-of-425 and 42nd in three-point percentage at 38.5 percent.
"I wasn't sure I was going to Lake Land until really late my senior year," said Jackson, who scored 1,693 points in her high school career. "I learned a lot from coach Johnson not only about basketball but about life too. I have made friends that will last a lifetime. I wasn't sure what role I would play when I got here, but I was hoping to get playing time and make an impact on the team."
Johnson said of Jackson, "The biggest thing she has improved on is her efficiency. She can really drive to the basket and score. Her three-point shooting has really helped her offensively. She is an intelligent lady who grasps things very quickly and has very good instinctual ability to figure things out without being told by the coaching staff."
Jackson hinted that maybe she would be a coach someday.
"If I ever want to coach I learned a lot from coach Johnson," said Jackson. "He taught me so many lessons in life. Basketball teaches you so much more than the game. I used to be shy and basketball made me come out of it to my comfort zone. I will never forget my time at Lake Land."
"Honestly, I didn't know much about the Lake Land women's' basketball program until the summer (2017)," said Parish. "Being able to play with Koty (Dakota Crowder) my freshman year helped a lot. This year I knew more was expected of me and I want to make an impact and leave a mark."
Parish averages 6.2 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. She is shooting 39.5 percent from the field and 78.4 percent from the free-throw line. She is 38th in the nation in assists.
"Probably the speed and the level of talent and the preparation the coach puts into every game are the biggest difference from high school.," said Parish. "This year it was a little more stressful. I didn't fully understand the pressure that Koty was in last year (Crowder is CHS grad that graduated from Lake Land in 2018) until this year when we didn't have her. It is nice to have Arie Sims in my corner as a point guard also."
Parish said Charleston coach Jeff Miller along with his assistant coach Haley Sparks helped her become the player she is today.
"I learned a lot from coach Johnson also," said Parish. "He definitely helped me be the player I am."
Contact Mike Monahan at (217) 238-6854. Follow him on Twitter: @monahanmikejgtc