NCAA Division III National Champions
Featuring plot twists, high drama and a happy ending, the Linfield Wildcats’ 2007 season played out like a good Hollywood script.
The stage was set for a run at the national championship, with eight prominent cast members returning from one of the most successful showings in history.
But the story took an unexpected detour just eight games into the season when senior captain Lisa Smith suffered a broken arm that threatened to end her career prematurely. Losing Smith, who was hitting a team-best .529, was a big blow for Linfield, which relied heavily on her leadership and experience.
Still, the Wildcats kept winning, fashioning a school-record 18-game win streak. Putting pain aside, Smith miraculously returned to the lineup on the final weekend of the regular season, just in time to help Linfield overtake challenger Whitworth and win its fourth straight Northwest Conference championship.
On their way to a second straight West Region title, the Wildcats were forced to battle back from what could have been a season-ending 5-0 deficit against Louisiana College. The ‘Cats had to fend off elimination twice at the NCAA Finals in Salem, Va., in order to claim the Division III crown.
The Wildcats finished the season with a record of 45-7, becoming the first Linfield women’s team to earn a national title.
Linfield had been knocking at the door of a national championship the last several seasons, but this year, the ‘Cats left little doubt at the end of which team was the best in the small-college ranks.
“Winning the national championship was very gratifying for the program as a whole. We tried to set a precedent by bringing in quality people,” said Wildcats coach Jackson Vaughan. “It really started with the 2004 group. To be able to go to regionals and win some games helped us to believe that something like the national championship was within our reach.”
Linfield finished fourth at the NCAA Finals in 2006, but graduated four seniors who were integral to the team’s rise to prominence.
“When we made it to the World Series in 2006, we learned we were capable of winning it all. But first we had to overcome the loss of some key seniors.”
The turning point of the season came during the regional tournament in Pineville, La., where Linfield trailed host Louisiana College by five runs.
“On the brink of elimination, the kids started to play for the pride of the program,” said Vaughan. “Beating a quality team in a hostile environment under adverse conditions was a huge step. After that, we started to figure out just how talented we were.”
To survive the regional, the Wildcats faced the daunting task of beating Redlands in back-to-back games. Redlands, which had already defeated the ‘Cats twice in 2007, looked to be in the driver’s seat, needing to defeat Linfield only once to advance to the national tournament.
With both teams running out of pitching, Linfield carved out a 4-1 win over the Bulldogs, then came back to pound the SCIAC champions by the score of 17-1.
Linfield entered the NCAA Finals as the favorite, but had to dig deep on more than one occasion to fulfill the prophecy. The Wildcats began the tournament with rousing 11-0 and 9-0 wins over Emory (Ga.) and DePauw (Ind.).
“We were much more intent on playing well at nationals,” said Vaughan. “Our confidence showed after we came out and scored six runs in the first inning against Emory.
Next, Linfield faced Washington-St. Louis and the nation’s best pitcher, falling 6-3 to drop into the losers’ bracket.
That didn’t bother the Wildcats, who outscored their opponents 66-23 in elimination games and 99-23 in the postseason. Linfield eventually beat Washington twice to seal the title.
“It was not just one person,” said Vaughan. “It seemed like just about everyone had a career season.”
Indeed, seven Wildcats batted over .400 and collectively, the ‘Cats hit at a .388 clip. Eighteen new team records were established, including home runs (50), stolen bases (133) and winning percentage (.865).
Jenny Marshall, who earned first team All-America honors, set a new single-season mark with a .442 batting average. Third-team All-American Stephanie Rice set new season standards for hits (86) and runs (65). Jena Loop, who was named the team’s most valuable player, enjoyed a banner season in which she hit .441 with 12 home runs.
Linfield’s pitching staff posted a stellar 2.35 earned run average. Brittany Miller led the way, compiling a school-record 24 wins against five losses. Erica Hancock (7-0), Samantha Van Noy (11-2) and Kendra Strahm (3-0) also made contributions in the pitching circle.