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The Lakeland College softball team plans to raise the bar for its program during its 2007 campaign with a seasoned group of returning starters, a talented cast of newcomers and heightened goals and expectations for all aspects of their game.
"Our team goal is to win the Northern Athletics Conference Tournament and reach the NCAA Tournament," said head coach Chad Buchmann, who begins his third year as the Muskies' head coach. "Aurora and Edgewood are consistent and we need to find a way to beat them if we are going to achieve those goals."
The Muskies finished second in Lake Michigan Conference regular season play last year with a 12-4 record and went 18-21 overall. The squad had a disappointing experience at the 2006 LMC tournament, opening with a 5-3 loss to third-seeded Concordia, Wis. Although the team rallied to defeat No. 5 Wisconsin Lutheran, 3-2, they fell to No. 4 Marian College in the elimination game, 5-1, ending their quest for an LMC title.
Despite the abrupt end to an otherwise promising season, the Muskies improved in many statistical categories from previous years, finishing with the least amount of defensive fielding errors in the LMC with 68. The squad also came in second in several other categories, including hitting (.351), total hits (159) and runs per game (7.88).
Although Lakeland has a roster heavy with newcomers, the team does have the luxury of returning the majority of its starting line-up with the exception of the pitching, second base and center field positions.
"With discipline and experience comes confidence and maturity," Buchmann said. "The ladies know that, are doing an awesome job holding each other accountable and are really focusing on doing the little things right."
That experience Buchmann speaks of comes in the form of one senior, seven juniors and two sophomores. The Muskies' lone senior, catcher Katie Yeager (Shawano/Shawano), will play a big role in helping the squad to stay focused on its goals, as she returns for her final year and will likely continue to be the teams' primary fixture behind the plate. She will be aided by the leadership and steady play of junior Elisa Waltz (Oakfield/Oakfield), a two-time All-LMC shortstop who finished third in conference last season for runs batted in with 26.
"Katie Yeager has stuck through some rough early years, persevered, and developed as a team leader," Buchmann said. "She can read what I'm thinking better than anyone else on the team and is able to help convey that to her teammates. Elisa has the range, the speed, can hit for power and is able to steal bases. She has to be nearly on her death bed not to play."
Also returning to the Muskies' starting line-up are a host of juniors: third baseman Kourtney Peters (Mishicot/Mishicot), first baseman Allison Lock (Green Bay/Green Bay East), right fielder Rebecca Schuettpelz (Kaukauna/Kaukauna), along with sophomore left fielder Jesse Van Camp (Green Bay/Green Bay West) and Christina Schultz (Appleton/Appleton North). Junior Pam Valukas (Plymouth/Plymouth) will also compete for time at right field after missing most of last season with an ankle injury.
"The juniors and sophomores have taken an active role of living the program's goals," Buchmann said. "Kourtney and Allison have taken on more of the leadership role. Kourtney is very level-headed and is tougher than nails. She'll get hit in the face and get right back up and keep playing. Allison has a strong glove to be able to pick up balls hit in the dirt and also has the potential to hit home runs."
The group is joined by a host of talented freshmen and one transfer, several of which will be involved in the starting line-up with others offering competition with returnees for starting spots.
Freshmen Sara Roberts (Escanaba, Mich./Escanaba), Amber Haese (Manitowoc/Manitowoc Lincoln) and Cassie Felton (Green Bay/Green Bay West) will make up the majority of the pitching staff.
"Sara has the speed, we just need to make sure she can mix up her pitches out there," Buchmann said. "Amber and Cassie will rely on different pitches and will become more comfortable with their control, given time to adjust."
Freshman KC Blahnik (Gladstone, Mich./Gladstone), also a member of the women's basketball team at Lakeland, will anchor second base. Junior transfer Sonja Barone (Great Falls, Mont./Great Falls), who also plays on the Muskies' soccer team, and freshman Chelsea Coenen (Wrightstown/Wrightstown) will both likely see time at center field.
"KC is a great athlete with an awesome attitude," Buchmann said. "She was also able to catch on to what we were doing really quickly coming out of basketball season. Sonja has great speed, can catch anything, hit the ball and steal bases. She makes our team 10 times faster and defenses will really have to worry about her. Chelsea also adds speed in the middle and can sub in as a catcher as well if we need her to."
Freshmen Sara Mallion (Manitowoc/Manitowoc Lincoln) and Cortni Jablenski (Des Plaines, Ill./Des Plaines) will push for time at the third and first base positions, respectively, while Corine Demske (DePere/Wrightstown), will look to share time in right field. Kristin Schwake (Two Rivers/Manitowoc Lutheran) will serve as back-up catcher to Yeager.
"Sara is a blue-collar player with a cannon for an arm," Buchmann said. "She is one of those players who comes to practice 20 minutes early and has a 'Yes, Coach' mentality. All of the freshmen are dedicated and will continue the Muskie tradition without a doubt. They have pride in the program already, so there is less molding that needs to be done. They are very team oriented and will really push our returnees for playing time. It's going to come down to who is getting the job done when we need them to."
The Muskies will need the combined talents of their returnees and newcomers in order to fill some holes in their offensive and defensive line-ups, particularly on offense with the graduation of senior sluggers and second base/shortstop options Monica Hetzel and Valerie Barlett.
Hetzel capped off her collegiate career at the top of the LMC in hitting nearly .444 with two home runs, two triples and five doubles during the 2006 season. Barlett's knack for getting on base more times than not will also be sorely missed, as she finished fourth in the conference with a .360 batting average and was fourth in both hits and runs scored with 47 and 35 respectively.
Another question the squad will have to answer is filling the void in the pitching line-up, with three of the four members of its pitching arsenal being freshmen. The Muskies' No. 1 force on the mound from last season, sophomore Rachel Griesbach, who finished third among all pitchers in the conference and compiled a 14-6 record in 23 appearances, will not be returning, nor will freshman back-up Kayla Nissen. The Muskies' only returning pitcher, junior Jenny Zimmerman (Green Bay/Green Bay Preble), missed most of last season due to an injury but will add depth to the team's pitching staff.
"Pitching and solid defense are the motto around here and the freshmen pitchers know this," Buchmann said. "We also know that one injury can change a team's fortune and that's why we are so fortunate to have nine athletic freshmen."
Lakeland kicked off the season with a 10-game tournament in Tucson, Ariz., from March 11-16 as a warm-up before facing the NAC schedule, finishing with a .500 record.
"At last year's tournament we didn't have enough power in our batting and we didn't have enough pitchers to go up against some of the teams we faced," Buchmann said. "We are more competitive this year, and there isn't anyone we can't compete with on our Arizona schedule that I can see."
The Muskies will then dig into their conference schedule in the inaugural year of the NAC, which will include perennially strong teams from Edgewood, who won last year's LMC championship, and Aurora, who claimed the conference championship title in the former Northern Illinois-Iowa Conference. However, the squad is fortunate to play most of the teams projected to be at the top of the conference at home, including Edgewood, Aurora, Wisconsin Lutheran and Concordia, Wis.
"Since I've been here, we haven't beat Edgewood or Aurora," Buchmann said. "Until we do, I see us in third place in the conference. But, we do have five Saturday home games. If we can win all of them, we'll win the conference and have a shot at getting in the NCAA tournament. I feel good about our chances and what the team is doing to achieve our goals."