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Although the Lakeland College softball team completed a promising 2007 campaign with the program's first 20-win season since 1999 (27-12 overall), this year's squad is looking to take advantage of its experience and talent to reach the next level.
The Muskies conquered numerous hurdles last season, highlighted by a 6-5 victory over Aurora University in the regular season to hand the Spartans their only Northern Athletics Conference loss. That big win helped Lakeland finish second in the regular-season conference standings (18-4), but the Muskies fell short in the NAC Tournament with a third-place finish after dropping games to Aurora and Edgewood College.
"We finished second in conference last year, so this year we would like to finish first," said head coach Chad Buchmann. "We've thrown the idea of getting 30 wins out there as well, but we need to be more prepared every single day for every game. We weren't quite there last year, and we've been working on getting the girls to be more mentally tough."
This year's squad looks to have a good shot at achieving that goal of improving upon last year's disappointing finish, as the Muskies are stacked with talent including three returning All-NAC team members and six experienced seniors.
"It's been much easier on the coaching staff to have that many seniors on the team because they have been in the program for four years and know exactly what they are doing," Buchmann said. "They pretty much run practice sometimes, know what is expected of them, and have done a good job of conveying that to our younger players who are still learning."
Lakeland will certainly need the guidance and poise of its senior class to help lead the team through a tough schedule, as the Muskies will face UW-Stevens Point, ranked No. 17 in the nation according to the final 2007 National Fastpitch Coaches' Association poll, and No. 10 UW-Eau Claire right off the bat at their season-opening tournament in Tucson, Ariz., which begins on March 15.
"This is the year to be playing those guys," Buchmann said of the team's challenging schedule. "Four years ago there is no way we would have had them on our schedule, but we're loaded with experience this year and we're definitely more competitive. We really want to come back from Arizona 8-0. Barring injuries, I think we're right there. We have a number of bullets in the gun that are strengths that we can draw from with three outstanding pitchers and players that can play multiple positions."
Having lost just two starters from last year's team, senior catcher Katie Yeager and junior left-fielder Sonja Barrone, the Muskies are fortunate to return their entire infield line-up, including the 2007 NAC Rookie of the Year, pitcher Sara Roberts (Escanaba, Mich.). Last season, Roberts tallied an impressive 19-7 record on the mound with 81 strikeouts, two no-hitters and a rare perfect game.
"We're trying to get her to move her pitches around more this year," Buchmann said. "Last year she was just straight power, and if we needed an out she just threw it by people. Hopefully we'll be able to get her to add a drop or a curve or get her change-up to go a little slower. Then she'll be a real weapon because the change of speeds will make all the difference."
Roberts will be re-joined on the mound by senior Jenny Zimmerman (Green Bay/Green Bay Preble) and sophomore Cassie Felton (Green Bay/Green Bay West), who both pitched well in relief last season.
Roberts and Felton will also be adding another dimension to the Muskies' game this season, as Buchmann has plans for having the pair step into the batter's box this season.
"We're looking at possibly having Cassie Felton and Sara Roberts hit this year, and they're doing really well so far," Buchmann said. "If we're able to throw those two into our hitting rotation, then we'll really be multi-faceted. At the same time, it will be interesting to see what happens when we start playing outside because right now we're hitting off a tee and using a pitching machine. It's not cold or rainy or windy, so those are the things that we will have to adjust to and see what happens."
Lakeland's pitchers can expect to be backed by a solid infield defensive scheme that has been playing together for at least one year. The line-up includes 2007 All-NAC and All-Rookie team selection sophomore second baseman KC Blahnik (Gladstone, Mich.), and honorable mention selections senior first baseman Allison Lock (Green Bay/Green Bay East) and senior third baseman Kourtney Peters (Mishicot). Senior shortstop Elisa Waltz (Oakfield), an all-conference pick as a freshman and sophomore, completes the squad's strong leadership core, while sophomore Sara Mallion (Manitowoc/Lincoln) and junior Tiffany Gann (Anchorage, AK/Bartlett) will back up Peters at third base.
In addition to tallying a collective .911 fielding average, the infield starters were also known for their skill at the plate, helping the team tie Aurora for the highest batting average in the NAC at .341. Blahnik had a break-out freshman season in 2007, turning out a .442 batting average with a NAC-leading .550 on-base percentage. Lock and Peters showed a great deal of power, as Lock knocked a team-high six home runs, followed by Peters with four homers and a team-high 33 RBI.
The Muskies' outfield is highlighted by senior right fielder Rebecca Schuettpelz (Kaukauna), another All-NAC selection who led the Muskies at the plate in 2007 with a .455 batting average, good for the No. 2 spot in the NAC. Sophomore center fielder Chelsea Coenen (Wrightstown) will return to center field, and Zimmerman will likely help fill the gap in left field.
"The outfielders are going to determine how well we do defensively," Buchmann said. "Cassie Felton, Pam Valukas and Corine Demske can also play outfield and could see playing time there. Corine could really be a difference-maker depending on how her swing comes along."
Demske (Wrightstown), a sophomore, and Valukas (Plymouth), a senior, have both shown steady improvement at the plate and on the field. Valukas especially has shown flashes of batting power, as she cranked two home runs and tallied 16 RBI last season.
While the Muskies' returning experience seems to put them in good shape for the majority of the fielding positions, the team still has a big hole left to fill behind the plate.
"Catcher is probably the area that is concerning me the most right now," Buchmann said. "The starting spot is still up for grabs because we have four girls that can possibly catch. Right now, Chelsea Coenen is our best catcher, but I'd rather keep her in center field. It will be interesting to see how that plays out in our first few games."
If Coenen remains the starter in center field, junior Nicole Holland (Waukegan, Ill.), sophomore Kristin Schwake (Two Rivers/Manitowoc Lutheran) or freshman Kristine Raeder (Sheboygan Falls/Oostburg) could possibly snatch up the role of the Muskies' starting catcher.
Holland missed last season after playing in 16 games her freshman year in 2006, while Schwake appeared in six games last season with no errors. Raeder is also showing promise behind the plate, which could make the catching situation even more interesting during the squad's first few games, based upon who can handle the power of Roberts' pitching arm.
In addition to Raeder, five other newcomers join the Muskies this season, with a few looking to make immediate contributions.
"We have three freshmen that are really standing out right now as far as out-hustling people," Buchmann said. "Kayla VandeWettering, Sam Shepeck and Kristine Raeder come from traditionally good high school programs, so they really know what they're doing. Those three are really putting a consistent swing together right now, and Heather Brooks has also improved a lot."
VandeWettering (Appleton/Appleton West) will look to work her way into the pitching rotation or possibly a fielding role in some capacity, while Shepeck (Gladstone, Mich.) will back up Lock at first base. Brooks (Salem/Westosha Central) will help out in the outfield, while pitcher Megan Kitchner (Boyceville) and second baseman Lauren Jones (Tigerton) will also push for playing time.
With the number of returning contributors from last season that experienced success, Buchmann expects hitting, pitching and infield defense to be major strengths, but considers a few of his players to be the 'X-Factor.'
"How well Jenny Zimmerman, Cassie Felton and Chelsea Coenen play will determine how well we're going to do," Buchmann said. "Out of those three, our juniors and some of our freshman coming in, we need two or three girls to step up."
In addition to battling through a challenging spring break schedule, Lakeland will return home to a NAC schedule and a few non-conference opponents that could be just as difficult.
Aurora is the overwhelming favorite to re-take the NAC crown, according to the preseason coaches' poll, followed by Lakeland and Marian College in second and third place, respectively. While Buchmann expects Aurora to be a good challenge once again, he expects tests from several other teams as well.
"The hidden teams in my book are Edgewood and Concordia, Wis.," Buchmann said. "To me, they are the ones that will tell us whether we are going to do well. In those games, it seems like anything can happen. Benedictine is always tough as well, and Wisconsin Lutheran brought in a really tough pitcher last year that showed us speed we hadn't seen yet."
Lakeland will begin its season with the first game of its spring break tournament against Jamestown College (ND) on Saturday, March 15, in Tucson, Ariz. Game time is set for 3 p.m.