For three years, the Nokomis softball team had goals, but never got to chase them in the playoffs. Entering this spring, the Warriors hadn’t reached the postseason in four years, and hadn’t played in the regional finals since 1983.
“It gets frustrating,” said Nokomis coach J.D. McLellan, who had coached the Warriors since 2004. “You’ve got to love the game to stick with it as long as this. The kids still wanted to be there, so that’s what kept you going.”
The love and patience McLellan showed were both rewarded in a span of a few weeks this spring. Nokomis entered the playoffs as the No. 6 seed, won a preliminary round game, then pulled off back-to-back upsets to reach the Eastern B championship game.
“Coming into this season, we wanted to host a playoff game. We’ll build for next year.,” McLellan said. “Getting to the point we did, it was a surprise. The kids just peaked when they were supposed to.”
That makes McLellan the choice as the Morning Sentinel Softball Coach of the Year. Madison coach Al Veneziano and Erskine coach Holly Tripp were also considered.
McLellan is comfortable being both silly and serious. He delivers a lot of his lines with a straight face, and from the stands, you won’t know he’s joking until a player laughs and tells him to shut up.
“He’s a goofball,” second baseman Megan Perry said. “He’s really good to be around. He can be a goofball, but at the same time, he’s hard on us. He has a perfect balance.”
“I think we had a better season this year because he made fun with it, but still knew when to be serious,” third baseman Taylor Lovley said. “We all joke around with him.”
After finishing 7-9 last spring, the Warriors began this season by winning seven of their first 10 games. But the key to the playoff run might have been a 15-3 loss to Oceanside, a game in which the Warriors committed several errors.
For a young team, it might have been easy for McLellan to tip his hat and admit Oceanside was a better team. But he got a sense that his players also believed they were better than what they had shown, and he reacted accordingly.
“After that game, he was pretty mad at us,” Perry said. “At first, when we talked to us, he was kind of trying to be supportive, pick us back up. But a little later, then he kind of picked us apart. He told us what we needed to do, what we had to work on. Then we really felt it in practice the next few days.
“We really had a turnaround after that game. Sometimes you have to feel that way to know, ‘I never want to feel that way again.’ ”
Everyone involved with the team thought team chemistry was another factor in the success. Sara Packard pitched brilliantly down the stretch, and the hitting and fielding both took a step forward.
“The seniors did it, Megan Perry and Becca Boyce,” McLellan said. “They were 99.9 percent of that team chemistry. They were very, very good at that. That’s going to be really hard to replace.”
“We started getting together as a team, going out for dinner, going out for ice cream after,” Lovley said. “We had a team sleepover. We had all that, which really helped us a lot. Things started clicking.”
In the playoffs, Nokomis handled Mt. Desert Island, then had to face Medomak Valley. A few weeks earlier, Medomak Valley beat Nokomis 8-3, in Newport, using a bunting and speed offense that forced the surprised Warriors into numerous mistakes. This time, Nokomis won, 3-2, in nine innings.
“We decided to adapt to everything,” McLellan said. “We were going to make them beat us long, so we brought everything right in, and we practiced the daylights out of that short game of theirs. We caught them on the right day, and just played excellent ball.”
A victory over No. 2 Hermon followed before the Warriors lost to eventual state champion Old Town in the regional final. The Warriors immediately began thinking about next season. When McLellan arrived at Nokomis, he said the field was known as “The Dandelion Diamond.” Through the work of former athletic director Jason Tardy and a lot of volunteers, it’s now a real softball field, and Nokomis is a real contender.
“Going in the No. 6 seed definitely made it easier in the playoffs, because no one’s looking at you,” Lovley said. “But next year, everyone’s going to be gunning for us during the season.”
“Next year, we’ve got to kind of up our game a lot, because they’re going to expect a lot,” McLellan said. “It’s a lot of pressure, but I like going into a situation where kids are saying, ‘Oh no, here comes Nokomis.’ (We) built a lot of confidence in the playoffs. It’s going to help us into next year.”

Matt DiFilippo — 861-9243
[email protected]

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