Their first year on varsity, the Lake Mills L-Cats won eight games. The second year, they took a step back with six wins.
Junior year, the L-Cats won a program-high 12 games, but they lost in the first round of the WIAA Division 3 softball playoffs.
By the time they were seniors, they felt like there was something missing. A bond. A connection.
Whatever you want to call it, the seniors found it in the 2019 season as they took second place in the Capitol North behind eventual-WIAA Division 3 state champion Poynette.
The L-Cats had a historic number of athletes earn first-team all-Capitol North honors: seniors Lexy Topel, Bri Jessie and Jessie Clift, as well as sophomores Taylor Roughen and Ellie Evenson. Lake Mills never had a player selected to the Wisconsin Fastpitch Softball Coaches Association; in 2019, they had two: Jessie and Clift.
“It was a cool recognition for our program,” Lake Mills head coach Jim Clift said. “These girls, especially the four seniors, have been really important for where we’ve gotten as a program.”
Destinee Anderson, Topel, Jessie and Clift understood what was missing from those first three years and it was on display in the early weeks of the season when they lost a close game to rival Lakeside Lutheran.
“When we were losing (earlier in the year) girls started getting frantic,” said Topel, the Lake Mills shortstop. “Our underclassmen have a lot of talent, but they started getting nervous because they made mistakes. We were just like, guys, it’s chill. Mistakes happen, just play.”
That was a key piece for the L-Cats as they attempted to unseat conference stalwart Poynette.
“I think, honestly, those first three years we knew we had potential. The way I always put it, we had all the right puzzle pieces but we didn’t put them all together,” catcher Jessie Clift said. “We took a step forward this year because we bonded and clicked on more of an emotional level.”
Clift suffered her third and fourth concussions in her career and was sidelined for much of the season. Both came on foul tips directly to the face mask. She used the injury as an opportunity to lead by example.
“The second (concussion), absolutely killed me emotionally,” Clift said. “I believe everything happens for a reason, but I couldn’t understand how this could happen. One night, I was awake late at night trying to figure it out and I decided I had to try to make the most of it.
“I decided this is how we show people what a good team player was by being at every game and every practice cheering as loud as I could.”
Those lessons were important for the success for the L-Cats and they hope those lessons continue to serve Lake Mills softball.
“It helped that the four of us and three in particular had played together for so many years,” Topel said. “We meshed well together, so it was great to see other players mesh well too and realize that everyone has a part. It’s usually hard to have everyone get along for girls. Because the three of us were on the same page, I think that helped the other girls realize how to be and how to handle things.”