By Mike Monahan

Lake Land, the No. 16 team in the May 3 national rankings, starts its postseason for the first time since 2019.

Lake Land (48-8) takes on Frontier Community College, located in Fairfield. 

The Lakers have played the Bobcats four times this season even though they are not in the Great Rivers Athletic Conference. Lake Land, the top seed in the eight-team tournament, won all four, starting with a sweep, 9-1 and 13-5, on March 27 at Lake Land and another DH sweep on April 27 – 11-1 and 9-0. 

Frontier (19-33), on a four-game losing streak, is the eighth-seeded team. Mattoon graduate Brooklyn Edwards, a first basemam, is a sophomore for the Bobcats. In 48 games, Edwards is batting .345, third on the team and leads the team in runs batted in with 34. 

The Lakers won the GRAC, going 36-4. 

The two teams play in the best-of-three first round series of the Division I region 24 tournament at 11 a.m. Saturday. The Lakers will play a third game tomorrow, if needed, because of the poor weather forecast for Sunday.

“When you beat a team four times, it always matters,” said Lake Land coach Nic Nelson. “What matters now is that we have to beat them six times, and that is not easy to do. They know us better and, when it gets down to the end, it is who gets hot. Their shortstop (Aly Bowers) is one of the better ones we have faced. She has great range and a strong arm and runs the bases well. Their No. 3 batter has 13 home runs. They are not an easy task.”

Rachel Kaufman is the top pitcher for the No. 16 Lakers. The sophomore from Seymour, Indiana has an earned run average of 2.07 and is 23-6 with 18 complete games. She has struck out 199 and walked 22 in 149 innings.

“I really focused on spinning the ball,” said Kaufman, whose grandfather went to school with Seymour’s favorite son, John Mellencamp. Coach (Denny) Throneburg has really helped me with working on my movement. It is not how hard you throw the ball, but if you can make the ball move a lot you can get the opponents to swing and miss.”

In other opening round games Saturday, No. 20 Wabash Valley plays seventh-seeded Lincoln Saturday after splitting two games Friday while fourth seeded Olney Central takes on fifth- seeded Southwestern Illinois College. John A. Logan College plays host to No. 6-seeded Kaskaskia College. The winners play at Mount Vernon on May 15-16 to determine who will advance to the national tournament. 

“There are two things I realized when we came back from the spring – and that is we always look to play top 10 teams in the country early in the spring and the other thing is she (Kaufman) learned a lot from her freshman year and developed another pitch, and that is what helped her out quite a bit.”

Kaufman has thrown two no-hitters this season – on March 9 in five innings against Olney and April 25 in six innings over Rend Lake.

“Each game, good or bad, I try and learn from it,” said Kaufman. “I try and make myself better each inning.”

Lake Land has been quarantined two times due to COVID-19 issues – the first two weeks of the school year and the first week of practice. 

“This is hard for everybody,” said Nelson. “These kids have been locked in their apartment and they get tested every week for COVID. For the coaches it is the same way as we have been vaccinated, but can’t see friends or family. Getting through this, and not just softball, but all sports is difficult. I told the girls if you want to play this is what you want to do (abiding by restrictions). This year the players have been closer than they have ever been.”

Kaufman agreed.

“We live together so I feel like we are close no matter what sense we do everything together,” said Kaufman. “Our chemistry is very tight. We had some challenges, but we all handled it pretty well. We try and stay focused throughout the season and just have fun. We definitely took it upon ourselves two work out on our own when we were quarantined. We hit and threw on our own.”

A series victory would give Lake Land 50 wins, which is nothing strange for a program that accomplished that feat from 2013-2017 and 2019. In 2020, the team played only played 25 games.

Lake Land’s offense is led by Tyanna Graber (.486) and Marama Makea (.429 ) as well as Kaitlyn Scheitler (.417). The team is batting .360, a little below the .382 mark during the last several years.

Said Nelson: “However, our on base percentage is a little higher than it has been the last several years at .443.”

Lake Land leads the nation in hit by pitch and has done so for five of the last six years. They have been hit 78 times in 56 games.

“It is a big source of pride for the team,” said Nelson. “It is just what we do. We just don’t move. The ball could roll up on your foot and we just tell them to stand there.”

Some coaches might think it is OK to lose on the last game of the regular season as at least it wasn’t in the postseason, but not Nelson.

“There are no good losses,”said Nelson. “I was upset after the loss. We had a ground ball that went between the legs of the third baseman and one off the glove. You just never know a bloop hit here or there.”

Lake Land is fifth in the nation in runs scored with 501.

“We have five left-handed batters and, sometimes, they have good games, but the right-handed batters don’t or the right-handed batters do and the left-handed does not,” said Nelson. “I am hoping one day they will both be together and will have a really good day.”

Added: Nelson: “I could care less what your batting average is or your on-base percentage. Right now it is to win.

Lake Land is 15th in the nation in earned run average at 2.62.

“Every team is different,” said Nelson, “I really appreciates the work Throneburg does as well as John Hendrix (when he is not coaching Cumberland) and Steve Simons the team grandpa, who keeps the scoring as well as volunteer dads that helped drive when needed. “These players are such great kids and good students. I enjoy them quite a bit. It doesn’t matter what the players think of me, but what I think of them does and I think the world of these kids.”