By Mike Monahan

The Lake Land women’s basketball team has qualified in back-to-back years for the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II National Tournament.

The Lakers, ranked No. 3 in the final national poll March 29, have won 12 in a row, beaten six top 10 teams and are now 21-2 – all of which earned the Lakers a No. 2 seed in the tournament set for April 20-24 at Hickory, North Carolina. 

“As soon as it was cancelled last year, we talked about getting back,” Lakers coach Dave Johnson said. “That was the first thing we talked about. We had a team Facetime and talked about getting focus for this year and trying to get back to nationals.”

The selection show Monday was projected onto a large screen at the Lake Land Fieldhouse.

“It was really cool,” said freshman Avery Still, a 5-foot-11 player forward from Sullivan. “It (seeing Lake Land appear) is definitely a feeling that is unforgettable. It will be fun to play in North Carolina, and I am so excited.”

Lake Land went 30-3 last season to earn a No. 3 seeding, but the tournament was canceled several days later due to COVID-19.

This is Lake Land’s fourth national tournament berth. Besides last year, Lake Land finished ninth in 2001 and was seeded No. 10 in 2012.

Lake Land will play No. 15 Lackawanna, a Scranton, Pa., school that is making its seventh appearance, having finished fourth in 2019. 

The Lakers will play the Falcons (12-4) at 2 p.m. on April 20. 

The tournament, originally set for Port Huron, Michigan, was moved to North Carolina at Catawba Valley Community College. 

The decision comes following a significant, recent rise in COVID-19 cases in Michigan. 

“While a late change in venue is not ideal, this difficult decision was made considering the current impact of the pandemic on St. Clair County and making sure our student-athletes have the opportunity to compete for a national championship this year,” said Dr. Christopher Parker, NJCAA President & CEO.  

Johnson, in his 20th season with a record of 487-252, had thought his Lakers would be seeded third. 

“When I did the seeding Sunday night in my head, I had us (number) three,” said Johnson. “I didn’t think Johnson County would drop that much, but I understand. I had the wrong opponent. I thought we were going to play Union County because I thought we were going to be the three seed and they were 14th.”

Johnson County, No. 1 all year, suffered its only loss in the region championship, 67-59 to Kansas City, Kansas, which won the national title in 2019. 

“I think it is a reflection of the hard work that our kids have put in this year,” Johnson said. “We have been very consistent in our play-high level. We beat six nationally ranked teams this year, 6-1 against top 20 teams in the country. It doesn’t help us win a game, but, obviously, it is nice notoriety.”

Lake Land is sophomore heavy, rostering four freshmen and 11 sophomores.

“Our freshman did a really good job,” said Johnson. “We had intrasquad scrimmages every Friday during the fall during our time in the fall and I think that helped them a lot. You get to play against players in practice and that helps.”

Said point guard Harley Barry: “Overall with all of the sophomores we had and with everything that happened to us last year. I felt like, personally, and the entire team as a whole felt that we needed to get back to where we were and felt like we could with all of the sophomores that we had returning and all of the freshmen that we had coming in.”

Johnson did not know anything about Lackawanna at the time of the announcement, but said he planned to learn as much as could by Monday evening.

Playing this season proved a challenge, even at the end. COVID issues shut down the team right before the final regular-season game.

“There was a lot of uncertainty,” said Barry. “We didn’t know when we would be able to come back and start practicing and if we were going to be able to play in the region tournament. We were a little worried that our season might be over but overall it turned out to be OK for us. I feel like the break didn’t’ help us because we were in our groove on a roll and with that it stopped us. So, we had to re-evaluate and readjust and come back and get into it again for our last two games. I feel like our last game we are back to where we need to be. I feel like a few more days of practice will help us get into the shape that we were in because those few days did hurt us, but I think overall we will be fine. “

If Lake Land wins April 20, they would play the winner between seventh-seeded Arkansas State Mid-South and 10th-seeded USC Salkehatche at 8 p.m. on April 21. 

“I think the season has been very long, but we got through it and pushed very hard to get to where we are now,” said guard Kamaria Gant. “I  feel like we challenged ourselves in practice to do better and get better every day. We got it taken away from us last year so that made us work even harder this year. I am just excited to have this opportunity.”

Johnson said the team will depart for North Carolina either Saturday or Sunday. 

Lake Land earned the berth after rolling over both Spoon River (68-41) and North Central Missouri (80-30) this past weekend in the district qualifier. They had not played a game for two weeks leading up the tournament.

“I think Friday we were a little bit rusty in the first half and also I think the fact that we played that team (Spoon River) twice already helped,” said Johnson. “In the second half, we started looking like ourselves. Obviously, Saturday we played really well. They just kind of accepted it as part of the season and kept moving forward. It was kind of at a time where we could have a break.”

Despite losing this past weekend, Johnson County advanced to the tournament. This is the first year the NJCAA will allow an at-large team among the 16 squads.

The semifinals are set for April 23 in the 2,800-seat arena while the championship game is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on April 24.  

“We just have to go out and represent our school well and our region well,” said Johnson. We are excited about the opportunity.”