Will Linfield’s run of regional and national dominance be sustained for yet another season?
With four proven hitters and a top-tier pitcher on the 2013 roster, there’s every reason to believe the Wildcats should continue to be included in the conference and national championship conversation.
Linfield is ranked No. 5 in the preseason NFCA Top 25 poll, yet sits in the proverbial shadow of Northwest Conference nemesis Pacific Lutheran, which defeated the Wildcats for the NCAA Division III crown last spring.
Fourteen letterwinners return from last season’s 46-7 team that reached the NCAA championship game. Linfield is seeking its 10th straight NWC championship and a fourth consecutive appearance in the NCAA title contest. The ‘Cats won it all in 2011 and were runners-up in 2010 and 2012.
There’s no denying Linfield must forge a new identity following the graduation of the two greatest home run hitters in Division III history, Staci Doucette and Emilee Lepp.
“We’re definitely not as power oriented as we have been in the past,” said coach Jackson Vaughan, whose 2011 and 2012 teams clubbed a combined 178 home runs. “We’ll mix speed with power and athleticism. It could be that we rely less on the home run and more on pitching, defense and timely hitting.”
With four key position players and an all-star pitcher needing to be replaced, Vaughan must retool, rather than reload, the Linfield lineup.
Third baseman Karleigh Prestianni (.432, 12 doubles, 10 home runs), a three-time NFCA All-American, is back to anchor the Wildcats’ infield. Shortstop Katy Brosig (.313, 7 doubles, 6 HR) and second baseman Ashley Garcia (.333, 8 HR) are among the Wildcats’ returning infield starters. Backing up Garcia and Brosig in the middle infield are letterwinners Shelby VandeBergh and Lisa Bennett. Veterans Haylie Watson and Lisa Yamamoto are battling for the starting job at first base. Freshman Jen Tautfest provides depth at third behind Prestianni.
Karina Paavola (173 strikeouts, 24 wins, 1.40 ERA), a third team NFCA All-American, is the top pitcher. VandeBergh and Montana McNealy also return with a measure of experience. Freshman Maddy Dunn, a left-hander from Lake Oswego, offers tantalizing potential and could see regular action in the pitching circle.
“Our pitching staff has experience and talent,” said Vaughan. “All four pitchers have the potential for great seasons. Each offers different strengths and weaknesses.”
Garcia and sophomore McKenna Spieth are in consideration for the starting spot at catcher, along with freshman Amber Taylor.
After two standouts were lost to graduation, the outfield remains a work in progress. Leadoff hitter Grace Middlestadt (.236, 24 stolen bases) is the most experienced outfielder and played her best softball during the Wildcats’ postseason run that saw Linfield prevail in eight of 10 playoff games. Seniors Megan Wallo and Rachelle Ridout are the frontrunners to claim a starting job. Sophomores Chelan Guischer and Erin Carson are in the mix, along with freshman Kristen Vroom.
The Wildcats have the opportunity to become battle tested early in the season when they venture to Georgia for the prestigious NFCA Leadoff Classic, featuring a Who’s Who of Top 25 softball programs. Linfield is scheduled to face playoff-caliber teams Gustavus Adolphus (Minn.), Ithaca (N.Y.) and Fontbonne (Mo.).
“There are a lot of kids on our roster with something to prove, more so than in past years,” said Vaughan. “There are question marks, sure, but if we strive to reach our potential, then this group has the chance to be another very good Linfield team.”
With PLU returning all but two starters from its championship team, securing a 10th NWC title and the league’s automatic berth to the NCAA playoffs will be far from easy for the Wildcats. Vaughan said the quality of NWC programs Willamette, Pacific, George Fox and Lewis & Clark make it all the more challenging to claim the championship.
“We don’t talk much about what happened last year,” said Vaughan. “We’re just focusing on this year and becoming the best team we can.”