When Jim Clift took over the Lake Mills softball program in 2014, it’s safe to say there he held no realistic aspirations for major postseason accomplishments.
“The vast majority of the team, frankly, didn’t even know how to throw the ball,” Clift said. “We had no club ballers. We had nine girls, plus one foreign exchange student who had never held a softball.”
Seven years later, the L-Cats are celebrating their first Capitol North Conference title — and are looking for much more.
Lake Mills, 20-3 overall and ranked No. 2 in the Division 3 state coaches’ poll, opens WIAA tournament play on Monday with a home game against Dodgeland/Hustisford.
A large part of this season’s success is due to senior Taylor Roughen, whose pitching efforts have her in contention for Capitol North Player of the Year honors.
“It’s always been a goal to get pitcher of the year in the conference,” Roughen said.
Roughen (pronounced ROW-when) is hitting .406 with three home runs, a triple and eight doubles, with an on-base percentage of .506. In the circle, she has a 0.31 ERA and .537 WHIP, with 222 strikeouts and eight walks — four of them intentional.
“The success that I’ve had is really my teammates pushing me to reach the goals that I’ve had for myself,” Roughen said. “Every single teammate knows my goals for myself — but also what I want to do with the team, like reaching state.”
That goal appears attainable, thanks to a newfound competitive fire within the team. Roughen has set a prime example for her teammates to follow.
She started for Lake Mills’ two-time state basketball tournament qualifier, and scored 10 points when the L-Cats stunned favorite La Crosse Aquinas in the Division 3 championship game on Feb. 26.
“She has a work ethic that has never been matched in my seven years here. Like, not even close,” Clift said. “Practice is done, and Taylor’s the first one out doing an extra hour of practice.
“She’s also the loudest one in the dugout (during games). No matter what — and it doesn’t matter who’s up, it could be the person with the lowest batting average on the team — you always hear Taylor cheering on every player.”
Even away from softball, Roughen has led by thinking of her teammates, even through the darkest of times.
“In February, I had lost my son,” Clift said. “Taylor was the first one to rally the team, get myself and my daughter some flowers, just to bring all the team together.
“Nothing has held this group down, whether it’s a pandemic, some tragedy within my own family. This group has stuck together through everything.”
Roughen reiterated the value the team’s bond has in its success.
“Our team has gotten pretty close, even over the course of four years,” she said. “This year alone, we’ve just gotten super close — which has definitely helped us on the field.”
For herself, specifically, Roughen detailed what inspires her to work as hard as she does at her favorite sport.
“I played in a tournament a few years ago, and I met this little girl,” Roughen said. “She was eight years old, her name was Libby, and we found out after one of our games that she came and watched that she had a double lung transplant before she was even one year old.
“She so desperately wanted to play, but obviously wasn’t able to. Every time I step on the field, I’m always playing for her and any little girl out there who wants to play but is unable to.”
Regardless of how the season turns out, it appears that Roughen — a Bryant & Stratton College softball commit — has led a turnaround season for the entire Lake Mills program.
“She always has a dream on her mind, always has a good attitude and always has a good work ethic,” Clift said. “I’m just extremely proud to have her be the face of Lake Mills.”