By Mike Monahan

Being the No. 1 team doesn’t mean much to Lake Land softball coach Nic Nelson. 

He’s justified in his assessment. Only three No. 1 teams have advanced from this weekend’s regional tournament to the national tournament.

Nelson appreciated hosting the best-of-three first-round series last week and not playing the early game tomorrow.

But beyond that, he says: “It is a wide open tournament.”

The Lakers (50-8) play at Mount Vernon at noon Saturday against Southwestern Illinois College, a squad that beat them in the last regular-season game on May 5, 6-5.

The Lakers, ranked No. 18 nationally, are playing them as part of the Region 24 double-elimination Final Four.

Lake Land has lost to the three other teams once. Therefore, says the cautious Nelson: “Any one of the four teams can win it. Everyone is 0-0.”

The winner advances to the NJCAA Division I National Tournament set for May 25-29 in Yuma, Arizona. 

SWIC (25-21) has won three in a row.  The Lakers beat them 12-3 in five innings and 6-2 on March 30 and later won 12-1 in five innings before the one-run loss at the end of the regular season. 

The other game scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday involves No. 2 seeded Wabash Valley against No. 3 seeded John A. Logan. The Blue Storm advanced by beating Olney Central 6-1 and 7-6 last Friday. 

The championship game will be Sunday. 

Lake Land shortstop Kyrsten Darrough has helped lead the team on both offense and defense. She is ranked third on the team in doubles (10), fourth in runs batted (42) from the No. 6 spot in the batting order and has been hit by pitches a team-leading 18 times in 47 games.

The Lakers advanced with 3-1 and 6-3 victories over Frontier College. 

“We struggled against them,” said Nelson. “Frontier has some good athletes, a really good shortstop and catcher. You know there used to be layup teams, but we don’t have those anymore. You can’t let up with anyone. Frontier came to play.”

The Lakers have averaged 52 wins a season under Nelson.

“It is a personal goal for me and for the team. We recognized the 50 wins and made it a point to talk about the 50 wins. We reached our goal and now it is on to the next goal.”

The Lakers are seventh in shutouts with seven. The freshmen pitchers, Claire Maulding and Tori Haug are a combined 23-2. 

“I am a lot like Nelson in that I love to win, but I hate to lose more,” said Darrough. “We have a talented team and I am very blessed to be on the team. After the loss against SWIC I was thinking it can’t happen like this. Every team that beats us cheers like they won the national championship. We are hoping to come out and win the regionals and take it all the way. With the talent and skill level and positive minds we can definitely do it.”

Like everyone on the team, Darrough was not happy the season got cut short last year. 

“The first time he (Nelson) called us into this office he said we were suspended for two weeks and so I was thinking we will be back on the field and be fine in two weeks. He called us into his office a week later to inform us that the season was done. The sophomores were close and so was the entire team. We couldn’t believe that was happening.”

Lake Land enters with a .355 team batting average and a 2.57 earned run average, while the Blue Storm has an average of .317 and a team earned run average of 5.19. 

Last year Darrough was batting .486 when the season was stopped. 

“I pride myself in leading,” said Darrough. “Ever since I was younger, I would take good leadership on the field. No matter what happens if there is an error I am there to pick them up. I communicate on the field also. You have to have someone on the field that picks up everyone.”

Darrough is 5-3. 

“I love lifting and working hard in the gym,” siad Darrough who hopes to continue playing softball the next two years at a college or university. ”It has given me power. When I was younger I would hit home runs and I owe that to my pitching coach, who is also my step-father, Jesse James. The coaches here helped me to use my lower half to drive the ball more.”

Darrough said she is hoping for a trip to nationals and a shiny new ring. 

“I was hoping we would go undefeated in the conference, but the team is better than I thought it would be especially after losing 10 sophomores.”

Nelson said the focus is on Saturday.

“We don’t want to lose focus on the first game,” said Nelson. “We will not talk about nationals at all and one of the reasons I don’t talk about it is to keep the focus on the game Saturday. I think whoever gets hot will win it. For us, our defense has to continue to play well and we have to hit. When the left-handed batters are hot the right-handed batters are not and when the right-handed batters are hot the left-handed batters are not. We have to get them to have a good game together. For us it boils down to scoring runs and keeping them off the base. “