MATTOON — The Lake Land softball team is coming off probably its best season in the program's history. The Lady Lakers finished in fourth place at the NJCAA Division I tournament, their highest finish ever at the tournament, last season and won 57 games, the most in the program's history.
Now the Lady Lakers will try and repeat that success, which will be easier said than done even though the team has plenty of returning starters and Lake Land has made the national tournament in six of the last seven years.
Lake Land returns its entire outfield, its catcher, a first baseman and a third baseman that saw some time. What Lake Land is missing is its entire pitching staff from last season and the middle of the infield.
But one thing the Lady Lakers have never been short on during Nic Nelson's tenure as the head coach is talent and once again, he feels he has a talented team as Lake Land opens the season with a tournament at Panama City, Florida, from Friday through Sunday.
"This team could be really good, it's really hard to read this early in the season. We are bringing back more sophomores than ever," Nelson said. "We have the entire outfield back. That's a lot of starters coming back, so that's always encouraging. It's going to be a fun team to watch when we get back home here in March."
But the Lake Land is missing three key players from last season's team and they were all in the circle. Emily Oestreich, who led NJCAA D-I in strikeouts and shutouts, is now at Illinois. Mattoon graduate Katelyn Fisher is at the University of Indianapolis. Dezi Leonard was a freshman this season but landed an offer IUPUI during the fall and is now a Jaguar.
So it's a whole new pitching staff for Lake Land this season. Holly Marousek, Madison Bostick, Sydney Rawlings and Braylyn Burdick are the four pitchers vying for the top two spots going into the season.
"To be honest with you, I don't know which one is the best and if you ask (pitching coach) Denny Throneburg, he wouldn't know either," Nelson said. "They all had shining moments this fall. Braylyn threw the Kentucky game that was 2-1. Then the combination of Sydney, Braylyn and Holly against Notre Dame, which was 5-4. We are going to play all four this weekend and see what happens.
"We like them, we think their futures are really good. Holly already has an offer to leave at the end of the year to a D-I school. They have to be tested so we will throw them out there and see what happens."
As inexperienced as the pitching staff is, the outfield is just the opposite as sophomores Haylee Short, Addison Baele and Alina Lance all return. Short batted .411 in 224 at bats and scored 72 runs and drove in 61 runs. Baele batted .404 in 208 at bats with 67 runs scored and 60 RBIs. Lance batted .336 in 116 at bats and had 45 RBIs.
Nelson also feels he has a quality backup with McKenzie Sullivan, who will see some time early in the season because of an injury to Short.
"She has had some great springs practices. We have some pretty good backups there," Nelson. "Still, those three have gotten better. Defensive, they are about same and are still pretty strong. They are bigger, faster, stronger and now they have the confidence of being sophomores. Addy has been hitting the ball extremely hard and has an offer from Liberty."
Nelson did have to fill a couple of spots in the middle of the infield.
Madeline Adams will take over at shortstop after Kendra Gengenbacher transferred to Quincy College to play volleyball. Adams is an NCAA D-I transfer from Chattanooga. She went to Chattanooga as a shortstop, but was converted to a pitcher. She transferred out because she wanted to play shortstop and landed with Nelson.
At second base, Samantha Valentine moved on to Middle Tennessee State after scoring 98 runs and stealing 32 bases while batting .476. Molly McElwee, who is from St. Joseph-Ogden, takes over at second. She missed a couple of years at St. Joseph-Ogden because of a back injury.
"Those two can be as good as any middle pair that we've ever had," Nelson said. "Maddie's travel coach called and I knew who she was and I said yeah. Molly was recruited by some Power 5 schools. Her high school coach called me and asked if I would be interested and I said yes. We've been nursing her through it. It's going to be an exciting infield I think."
Kendall Hastings takes over at first base. She batted .339 with 30 RBIs in 127 at bats. Hope Collier is penciled in at third after batting .455 in 44 at bats.
"Kendall is pretty solid at first," Nelson said. "Hope is going over to third and that's not her normal position. She's looking real good there."
Monica Menas took over full-time catching duties last season and batted .317 with 20 RBIs in 145 at bats. She will be the main catcher to start the season after having a solid postseason run.
"Right before the regional tournament, I made up my mind to go with Monica and it ended up going good," Nelson said. "She turned it on big time at the tournament. She is majoring in Paramedics and passed her national boards."
Once again, Nelson put together a tough schedule for Lake Land to start the season. After the tournament at Panama City, Lake Land returns to Florida for the annual Chipola tournament the next weekend. Plus the team will travel to Alabama for a few games and to Tennessee for a doubleheader before returning home for Great Rivers Athletic Conference play.
Nelson said the trips wouldn't be possible without the help of donations to the team.
"The first four weekends, we are playing some of the best of the best in the country, so we are going to be tested," Nelson said. "We had to raise a lot of money this year, a lot more than usual. All of our spring trips are fundraised money. When you finish fourth in the nation, everyone wants you and Salt Lake requested to play us (in Florida) and that's an honor.
"We will have our ups and downs, but it will be an exciting year and see what happens."