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The Lakeland College softball team goes into a new season with a new head coach for the first time in eight years as it opens its 2013 season this weekend at the Finlandia (Mich.) University Dome Tournament in Marquette, Mich.
The Muskies begin their season on Friday against Lake Superior State (Mich.) University at noon and also will face Mount Mary College as well as Finlandia, in all playing a total of three games on the day. The tourney is a prelude coming two weeks before Lakeland kicks off its season in earnest when it travels to Kissimmee, Fla., for the Rebel Spring Games over spring break.
Lakeland finished 20-19 overall last year and 14-10 in the Northern Athletics Conference to tie Dominican (Ill.) University for fifth in the conference. Chad Buchmann resigned after eight successful seasons, and Hailey Dreyer was hired in July as the Muskies' new coach.
Dreyer comes to Lakeland after two years as an assistant coach at the University of Dubuque. She also played two years at Dubuque and later for NAIA power William Penn (Iowa) University, where she was an All-Midwest Collegiate Conference selection on the field and MCC All-Academic off the field.
Dreyer inherits a team that features three cornerstone returning senior leaders in outfielder Heather Haeflinger (Shawano, Wis.), infielder Jenny LaLuzerne (Sturgeon Bay, Wis.) and pitcher Erin Henk (Hoopeston, Ill.). All three are three-year letter winners, and each will lead groups at their respective positions.
Haeflinger has received All-NAC recognition each of the past two years, including Second Team All-NAC honors last year when she batted .344 and finished fifth in NCAA Division III with ten triples. She also ranked fourth in the conference in runs scored and tied for the team lead with 11 stolen bases, and will lead the defense in the outfield in center field.
"Heather has had an amazing career here at Lakeland-she really is the spark plug to our program," Dreyer said. "She has an amazing work ethic and her dedication is unbelievable, which is why she is such a threat both offensively and defensively."
LaLuzerne serves as a utility player but has always been in the lineup somewhere the past three years. She's a career .395 hitter and last year led the Muskies with 27 runs batted in. LaLuzerne also was third on the team in hits and added four triples, and she also committed just one error in 109 chances last season.
"Jenny is a kid you can put at any position at any time and not only would she be happy to do it, but she'd excel at it," Dreyer said. "I am excited to see what she can do, and expect big things from her-she has a powerful bat and is a tremendous fielder."
Henk was the team's ace and workhorse in the circle last year, starting 31 of 39 games and logging 194 innings. She finished with a 15-13 record and a 3.68 earned run average, and she ranks among the Muskies' career leaders in games started, wins and innings pitched.
"I expect big things out of Erin on the mound this year," Dreyer said. "She is a talented pitcher who really brings a lot to the plate, both talent-wise and in leadership she will be our No. 1 this year. (And) she'll be even more successful this year since we can limit her innings and she can focus on throwing seven instead of 14 a day, which ultimately will make her a huge threat."
The three returning leaders are bolstered by a group that includes returnees, freshmen, plus two added senior members to the team. It has added up to healthy competition for positions and roles on the team, according to Dreyer.
"We've had an awesome offseason, and the work they have put in has really shown in practice," she said. "The freshman class is really exciting to see-they are hungry for playing time and a start and really put a large threat to upperclassman. I love the friendly competition, you want players on your program that are just as talented as the next, it makes them all work a bit harder to earn that spot in the lineup."
Henk should have help this season, as the Muskies have depth on the mound this year, unlike in past seasons.
Freshman Melissa Noll (Green Bay, Wis.) has, according to Dreyer, "worked hard in the offseason and has made the changes she needed to be successful. I'm excited to see how she will do as she has a lot of talent."
Freshman Alyssa Ciepley (Wood Dale, Ill.), sophomore Elizabeth Zimmerman (Shawano, Wis.) and freshman Natalie Neitzel (Theresa, Wis.) will also get quality time on the mound, according to the coach. Zimmerman backed up Henk last year and was 3-3 with a 6.55 ERA in 31 innings, while Neitzel is a member of the Lakeland women's basketball team and was an all-conference pitcher at Lomira High School.
"Alyssa was lights-out the first two weeks of spring ball, she can hit spots consistently and has a lot of break on her ball," Dreyer said. "Elizabeth has a lot of power and speed, if she can learn to work into our pitching program and become more consistent she could be a really big threat. And we haven't seen anything from Natalie yet as she is also a part of the women's basketball team; however, she had a very successful high school career and I'm excited to have her join us once her season is done."
Haeflinger also is joined by young players in the outfield, including freshmen Kathryn Tighe (Brownsville, Wis.), Ashley Hough (Rapid River, Mich.) and Alexandrya Smaglik (Manitowoc, Wis.).
"I can't say enough about the three-they have really taken the offseason seriously and have bought into the program we are teaching here. Tighe and Hough are extremely powerful-both with their arms and at the plate. I look for these two to step up and make contributions right away to our program. Alex has been dedicated since the moment we had our fall softball meeting-with some more time and experience she is going to be a great player."
LaLuzerne leads an infield that includes a number of returnees. Dreyer said that returning juniors Brittany Jurek (Gladstone, Mich.) and Kaylee Ninnemann (Marinette, Wis.) and sophomores Kate Wallen (Mundelein, Ill.) and Kaitlyn Hoffman (Plymouth, Wis.) are vying for starting spots. Hoffman was a starter last year as a freshman, hitting .330 with 37 hits and 21 RBIs, and Jurek started the first two games last year before a broken wrist sidelined her the rest of the season.
"Kaitlyn has an arm like I have never seen and has great range," said Dreyer. ""Brittany was out last season but has a really good glove and is a natural infielder at any position. Kate Wallen is one of our hardest workers if not our hardest worker, and such a positive motivator on the infield, and Kaylee is a hard worker and has made a drastic improvement since fall ball. She hits the ball with a lot of power, which is going to make her viable to playing as a designated hitter and at first base."
Others playing on the infield include senior Hillary Kammerzelt (Elkhart Lake, Wis.), who played at NAC rival Marian University as a freshman before transferring to Lakeland, where she did not play softball the past two years. Sophomore Becca Elliot (Indian River, Mich.) and freshman Devonna Stadler (Milwaukee, Wis.) also will see time at first base, while Alison Bauer (Fr.-Green Bay, Wis.) has been a pleasant surprise for Coach Dreyer and is expected to start the season at third base.
The Muskies have a trio of experienced players at the catcher position. Juniors Chelsea Gile (Grand Junction, Mich.) and Megan Lawson (Marshall, Wis.) saw time behind the plate last year, and Gile tied for the team lead in home runs (three) and started 38 games last season around the diamond. "She is a natural athlete who has a lot of talent and can play multiple positions," Dreyer said. "If we are struggling in the infield defensively-Chelsea will be one of the go-to players."
Also rejoining the team this season is Jessica Eichner (Sr.-Germantown, Wis.). Eichner was a starter on the team in 2010 and 2011 but did not play last year. "When I talked to Jess early in the fall about coming back to the program you could tell she had that look in her eyes of unfinished business. She is extremely talented and I am excited to see what she is going to do."