Success hasn't been a frequent occurrence for the Lakeland Union High School softball program.
Heading into the 2018 season, the Thunderbirds had won just eight games since in Great Northern Conference play since its inception in 2009.
First-year head coach Jason Morris took on the task of rebuilding the program, which had taken a step forward in 2017 by winning double-digit games. Lakeland took another step this season, eclipsing last year's win total with 12 and its four GNC wins were the most in school history.
"There was a lot of improvement on the skill set level," Morris said. "We had a lot of girls step up from last year that weren't in starting roles and I think they worked hard in the offseason, but I think that their attitudes was different and a lot more up-beat than it has been in the past. I think that reflects substantially on where they ended up."
Still there was a gap between Lakeland and the upper echelon of the conference.
In games against teams that finished in the top for of the GNC - Mosinee, Tomahawk, Antigo and Rhinelander - the T-Birds won just one game and suffered nine of their 14 losses on the season to those teams, including a WIAA Division 2 Regional Semifinal loss to the Lady Hodags.
Closing that gap and becoming a player in the GNC is the next goal on the list.
"There's one more year of experience for our girls to grow and I think that they've seen and tasted what they're capable of doing with some success this year," Morris said. "I think that the other teams are going to go through some changes next year to level the playing field a little bit more with our improvement in skill set and some of the other teams may lose some seniority. So I think that may play into their effectiveness over the course of the next year or two."
Lakeland earned three selections to the All-GNC squads at the end of the season.
Sophomore Tatum Morris became the first T-Bird to be named first-team All-GNC this year after placing fifth in the conference with 34 strikeouts and four wins. She also hit .351 at the plate, with a team-high 13 hits.
Junior transfer Emma Salquist was voted second-team all-conference after leading Lakeland with a .353 average and five doubles.
Caitlin Hartigan was also a second-team pick after hitting .333 in conference play.
The T-Birds do lose senior captain and catcher Kallin Lenz, so replacing her leadership and play behind the plate is going to be a focal point in the offseason.
"Not only that senior leadership piece of it, but at the critical position of catcher, is going to be a big hole for us to fill," Jason Morris said. "We've got some work to do over the summer. We're going to get some sessions together with the girls to see how we can work with an individual or two to see if they can step up and fill that spot to see if we can't take the next six to eight months to build someone to take that role for us."
One of the reasons Lakeland hasn't been able to keep pace with the rest of the GNC in the past has been a lack of a youth program and a summer program for high school girls.
This season Morris hopes to change that by getting some practice sessions in or fielding a team to play games.
"Everybody has stepped up and said they have interest in getting together a travel team or a team that plays some games," Morris said. "We are definitely going to work through some practices and some captain's practices to at least make sure the girls work on their skill sets. We've got a couple of incoming freshmen that are playing with the 14U program, so it'll be good for them to get that experience, but there's a lot of stuff going with the activities here."
While Lakeland still has work to do, particularly at the plate, where the T-Birds hit just .243 - well above the .188 they hit as a team in 2017 - there is no question the program is trending up headed into the 2019 season.
"Next year we're looking forward to more coordination with the youth program," Morris said. "This year I had so much focus on what we had to do at the high school level that I didn't put as much into the youth program as I was hoping to...The hands-on approach I was hoping to get more involved with just didn't happen so that's going to be an ongoing process."
Lakeland projects to return all but two players for next season after finishing 12-14.
Nick Sabato may be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter@NickSabatoLT.