Lakeland softball rolling into final stretch of regular season
Athletics - posted on 4/21/2009
A combination of dominant hitting, solid pitching and excellent fielding is every softball coach's dream.
If that is indeed the case, then Lakeland softball coach Chad Buchmann is living a dream, as his Muskies have won a staggering 19 games in a row thanks to that very combination.
The team ranks in the top three in the Northern Athletics Conference in batting average (.369, first), earned run average (2.66, third) and fielding percentage (.954, third) through games of Saturday, April 18.
The Muskies (21-5, 14-0 NAC), who have not lost since March 18, are tearing through the conference heading into the final seven days of the regular season. On Saturday, Lakeland pounded out 30 runs on 33 hits in a doubleheader sweep over MSOE at home.
The team currently sits in first place in the league, just ahead of Aurora and Benedictine, two teams which Lakeland still has to face prior to the conference tournament, which begins on April 30.
Buchmann, who is in his fifth season as the head coach at Lakeland, also attributes the team's success to its exceptional mixture of experience and youth.
The team's returning core of five juniors and two sophomores is blending nicely with the seven freshmen, a group which Buchmann says is as athletic and talented as any first-year group he's had in his tenure at Lakeland.
"Last year we got into a little bit of a lull, and we ended up finishing fifth in the conference, when we are accustomed to finishing in the top two or three," Buchmann said. "That returning group coming back has improved so much, and our freshmen class is following their example.
"Our juniors are leading the way, and our freshmen just go about it. They don't sit and nag. We've worked on being more accountable for our performance."
Offensively, four Muskie regulars are hitting above .375, including junior second baseman KC Blahnik, who is hitting an eye-popping .548, which ranks second in the NAC. The Gladstone, Mich., native leads the league in runs scored (43) and is tied for first in home runs (nine) and hits (46). She leads the nation with 1.72 runs per game.
If you ask junior pitcher Sara Roberts what the key to the current winning streak has been, she won't hesitate to answer.
"It's timely hitting," said Roberts, a 14-game winner as a pitcher and a .340 hitter this season. "Some games, we've relied on a few people to get hits, but there have been a lot of games where the whole line-up is good."
The team, which ranks among the top four in most NAC offensive categories, is first in the league and 12th in the nation with 7.88 runs per game, thanks in large part to a wealth of extra base hits.
The Muskies have pounded out 20 home runs, and lead the conference in doubles and triples. Besides Blahnik, junior centerfielder Chelsea Coenen (Wrightstown) has also stepped up in that department, leading the league in doubles (14) and triples (seven).
Freshman catcher Christina Moore has been one of the team's biggest surprises. Moore, a New London native, has been solid behind the plate and is hitting .494, which ranks second on the team. She hit three home runs, including her first career blast and a grand slam, in a sweep at Alverno last Tuesday.
"We've had some freshmen step into key roles," Blahnik said. "Moore has stepped into the catcher's spot and had some big hits. The catcher plays such a crucial role; she's like a director on the field. She's doing great, and I hope she keeps it up."
While Blahnik, Coenen and Moore have been the primary offensive instigators, Buchmann noted the overall strength of the team's entire line-up.
"Every game, someone new steps up," Buchmann said. "We are hitting well, bunting well and playing aggressively. One through nine, Benedictine and Aurora can hit, but that's what we're doing as well."
The Lakeland pitching staff and defense has been superb as well. Buchmann has used a combination of Roberts and junior Cassie Felton, and freshman Alyssa Nelson, on the mound. The trio has combined for a shutout in five of the last eight games, and has surrendered just one run on two occasions in that stretch.
"As pitchers, we're just working to get ground balls," Roberts said. "We're relying on our defense and our coaches. The coaches know the hitters in the conference pretty well, so they have a pretty good idea of where we need to throw it."
Defensively, Buchmann said the team has been very fundamentally sound, pointing to miscues made earlier in the season which the team no longer makes.
"We have our defensive coverages down after they broke down against Central (March 15) earlier this season," Buchmann said. "We're being patient and playing our game, and playing good defense as a result."
The head coach is pleased with the results so far and is confident in his team's ability to contend for a conference title.
"Our freshmen don't know any better, and our juniors are telling them not to mess around, because we're competing for a conference championship," Buchmann said. "We knew we could finish in the top three, and now we're actually doing it, not just saying it."
With a grueling 10 games in five days to conclude the regular season, the team will need to grind out wins the way they've been doing it since mid-March - with hitting, pitching and defense.
"We've had 19 wins in a row, but you have to take them one game at a time," Blahnik said. "Breaking it down into smaller parts, even like an inning or a single at-bat, helps our focus. We've done all season, so there's no reason we can't do it now."
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