By Mike Monahan
Ten months ago, the COVID-19 pandemic halted Lake Land’s realistic chance to capture the school’s first national basketball championship.
The Lakers were 30-3, on an eight-game win streak and ranked No. 4 entering the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II tournament last March.
They haven’t played since.
“It has been so long now that I think right now the players are just ready to play some games. Once we start, you will see that motivation start to build,” said Lake Land coach Dave Johnson.
The Lady Lakers, ranked No. 10 in the national preseason poll, were able to practice 60 days in the fall and for three weeks in January to prepare for a 22-game season that begins this weekend.
“We have had to kind of restart stuff from the fall and get them back in shape,” said Johnson, in his 23rd season. “That has been the big thing. Being off three weeks may not seem like that long, but in basketball it is a long time.”
While last year’s team was one of the youngest in Johnson’s 19 seasons, this year’s is one of the oldest with 10 returning sophomores and one transfer – Mikayla Sirjord from Bemidji State, a Division II school in Minnesota.
Tri-County’s Harley Barry, Charleston’s Elizabeth Buescher and Effingham’s Abby Weis are among the other sophomores.
“We have all kinds of leaders and the most vocal is Weis,” said Johnson.
The three freshmen: Karrington Krabel of Paris, Olivia Niemerg of Teutopolis and Avery Still of Sullivan.
“I don’t think we are at a level of conditioning that we would be normally,” said Johnson. “So the first couple of weeks we will play a large number of players just to get it figured out.”
Weis is Lake Land’s top returning scorer at 11.5 points per game, while Newson led the team in rebounds, assists and steals per game at 6.9, 3.2 and 3.2 respectively. Weis also shot 72.3% from the free-throw line and made 34.9% of 3-point attempts.
Although the Lakers offense ranked 30th in the nation at 72.3 points per game, it was the defense that stood out – allowing only 53.1 points per game, fifth best in the nation.
“Eventually, our defense will be our strength,” said Johnson. “We are not where we need to be, yet. Part of that is playing against the same people in practice because they know players tendencies and they know the offense. I think we will play more of a variety of defenses this year than we did last year.”
Fearday, the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II Player of the Year, averaged a team-leading 15.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.3 steals and was 130-of-387 (46.5 percent) from the field, including 41-of-115 (35.7 percent) from beyond the 3-point line. She was 106-of-139 (76.3 percent) from the free-throw line, which led the team.
“Kamaria Gant will be the one to step in and play a lot in that position,” said Johnson. “She played a lot in that position last year as she was the first guard off the bench and got a lot of minutes. She had a really good fall.”
Johnson said last year’s team did an exceptional job passing, setting screens and shooting, skills that will require game experience. The team typically plays scrimmages against four-year college to prepare for the season, which was not possible this year.
“When you take a break (three weeks) it always affects your shooting,” Johnson said. “You can shoot the ball well in practices, but games are different. We have to play some games to see where we are shooting wise.”
Johnson said the freshmen are adjusting really well to the college game.
“They have adapted to the speed of the game and have gained more knowledge of the offense and how to play defensively,” said Johnson, named co-Coach of the Year by the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association after last season, an honor he also received in 2001 and 2012. “All three freshmen will come in and contribute right away and that will help.”
While Lake Land players and coaches are tested once a week for COVID, fans won’t be allowed to attend games this season.
“I told the girls on the bench they have to bring energy every game,” said Johnson. “The gym will be quieter. We may use non-verbal signals so that everyone knows what we are doing.”
Lake Land opens the season at 1 p.m. Saturday against Lincoln Trail College in a GRAC game. The Lakers play each conference team once and Region 24 teams twice.
The Lady Lakers are assisted by J.R. Hodges, who is in his 12th season, and Tom Titus, in his 14th season.
|02||Mikayla Sirjord||5-7||So||Ulen-Hitterdal, MN|
|12||Tresoir Newson||5-9||So||Normal West|
Home games in CAPS
Saturday – LINCOLN TRAIL*, 1 p.m.
Monday – OLNEY CENTRAL, 5:30 p.m.
Jan. 27 – Shawnee Community*, 5:30 p.m.
Jan. 30 – Wabash Valley*, 1 p.m.
Feb. 6 – John A. Logan*, 1 p.m.
Feb. 11 – JOHN WOOD, 5:30 p.m.
Feb. 14 – SPOON RIVER, 1 p.m.
Feb. 18 – Illinois Central, 5:30 p.m.
Feb. 21 – Lewis & Clark, 1 p.m.
Feb. 22 – KASKASKIA COLLEGE*, 5:30 p.m.
Feb. 25 – PARKLAND, 5:30 p.m.
Feb. 28 – Danville, 1 p.m.
March 4 – LINCOLN LAND*, 5:30 p.m.
March 7 – Spoon River, 1 p.m.
March 8 – Southwestern Illinois*, 5:30 p.m.
March 11 – John Wood, 5:30 p.m.
March 14 – LEWIS & CLARK, 1 p.m.
March 15 – Olney Central*, 5:30 p.m.
March 18 – ILLINOIS CENTRAL, 5:30 p.m.
March 21 – Lincoln Land, 1 p.m.
March 25 – Parkland, 5:30 p.m.
March 28 – DANVILLE, 1 p.m.
- – Great Rivers Athletic Conference game