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The Lakeland College softball team will look to bounce back from the five-game losing streak it endured to close out its regular season schedule in order fight for a chance at its first Northern Athletics Conference tournament crown beginning on Thursday, May 1, at Jericho Park in Aurora, Ill.
The fifth-seeded Muskies (16-18, 15-9 NAC) will take on No. 4 Wisconsin Lutheran College (19-15, 16-8 NAC) to kick off the double-elimination tournament at 3 p.m. on Thursday.
"We're a little disappointed with the No. 5 seed because we lost a couple games that we shouldn't have," said head coach Chad Buchmann. "We split with Edgewood, Marian, Alverno and Concordia Chicago, and those were games that we would have needed to get in order to move up."
Although the Muskies closed out their NAC schedule with a 1-5 record after rattling off five straight wins, that single win came against Wisconsin Lutheran, 6-4, in the first game of their split doubleheader on April 23 before falling a close 6-5 in the second game.
Lakeland will need to be sure to combine reliable offense with flawless defense in order to overcome the Warriors, which has been somewhat of an issue all season.
"We have to play better on defense," Buchmann said. "Our outfield needs to catch routine fly balls. We also need to see some timelier hitting because we tend to go in streaks of doing well and then not doing well. We need more urgency on offense. It's going to come down to who executes the right plays at the right time, who gets their bunts down and whose pitching is on."
The Muskies will also have to contend with Lutheran's top pitcher, Michelle Shambeau, who racked up 12 strikeouts pitching all 14 innings during the doubleheader. However, the Muskies' top pitcher, sophomore Sara Roberts, gave the Warriors all they could handle as well, retiring nine batters in 12 innings in the circle.
In addition to Roberts, who is sixth in the NAC with a 2.33 ERA, Lakeland will also rely on the scrappy hitting and steadfast fielding of sophomore second baseman KC Blahnik and sophomore center fielder Chelsea Coenen.
"Right now everyone needs to step up, especially our seniors," Buchmann said. "Chelsea Coenen stands out in my mind in terms of consistency, but we need everyone else to do their job and get on base so we can really use her as a powerful tool."
Coenen's batting seems to be peaking at just the right time, as she recorded at least one double or a triple in nearly every game last week with a home run in the second game of the Muskies' non-conference doubleheader against Ripon College on Sunday. She leads the NAC in triples this season with eight. Blahnik's contributions are also vital, as she leads her teammates with 37 hits and is tied for first in doubles with seven.
Senior first baseman Allison Lock and senior third baseman Kourtney Peters will also be counted on to provide the Muskies with some power at the plate and for consistent coverage of the infield corners. Lock leads the team batting .384, good for the No. 12 spot in the NAC. She also has seven doubles, three home runs and a team-leading 29 RBIs on the season. Peters has also had a strong season at the plate, collecting five doubles, three home runs and 22 RBIs while batting .327.
If the Muskies defeat Wisconsin Lutheran, they will face No. 1 seeded Aurora University (30-6, 23-1 NAC) on Friday, May 2, at 9 a.m. A loss will pit Lakeland against the loser of the No. 2 Benedictine game vs. either No. 3 Marian College or No. 6 Edgewood College on Friday at 1 p.m.
To see the complete 2008 NAC softball tournament bracket, please click here.