Watch the Final Out
SALEM, Va. – Fittingly, it was a home run that provided the difference for the Linfield College Wildcats, the newly crowned NCAA Division III softball champions.
The Wildcats capitalized on a timely weather delay, a gusty wind and a two-headed monster in the pitching circle to defeat Christopher Newport (Va.) 6-2 on Monday in the championship game of the NCAA Finals at Moyer Sports Complex. The team hoisted its second softball trophy in five years and celebrated the college’s eighth team championship in school history.
Ranked No. 1 all season long, Linfield finished with 51 wins against three losses, setting a new Division III record for victories. Unranked Christopher Newport, whose only defeats at the NCAA Finals came on consecutive days to Linfield, finished its season at 38-12.
Karleigh Prestianni smacked her 14th home run of the season and Linfield’s NCAA-record 103rd, delivering the extra burst the Wildcats needed in the sixth inning to break a 2-2 tie following a lightning delay.
Unable to take full advantage of four CNU errors through the first five innings, the Wildcats managed just two runs and four hits off of Captains starter Krista Townsend.
Townsend held Linfield’s heavy hitters in check for much of the day, striking out seven Wildcats through the first five frames. She recorded only one more out once play resumed.
Two CNU miscues led directly to the game’s first run. Linfield leadoff hitter Kayla Hubrich reached base on a fielding error by shortstop Candice Zollars and moved to second when Emilee Lepp was hit by a pitch. Following a double steal that put runners at second and third with one out, Staci Doucette reached base on a second error by Zollars, forcing Hubrich home.
Linfield led 1-0 until the top of the fourth inning. Chelsea Mitchell singled a 2-2 pitch off Wildcats starter Claire Velaski, allowing Ashley Mani enough time to score from third.
Linfield went back on top in the bottom of the frame. Alex Hartmann singled to left field and advanced to second on an error by second baseman Jennifer Falin. A clutch two-out single by Jordan Mixsell pushed Hartmann home and the Wildcats led 2-1.
Lauren Harvey relieved Velaski to begin the fifth inning and the Captains promptly loaded the bases with no outs. Jessie Atkinson picked up a game-tying RBI with a high ground ball to the middle of the infield, forcing the Wildcats to work the out at second base rather than trying to gun down Kelly Foate at home plate.
The Wildcats put a runner in scoring position in the fifth but couldn’t push her home. Lepp singled to right-center field and stole second. But Townsend struck out Doucette swinging on a full-count pitch and Emily Keagbine grounded out to end the inning.
A thunderstorm moved over the field and light rain began to fall to begin the fateful sixth, forcing a nearly one-hour delay. The field and stands were cleared with the scored knotted at 2.
When play resumed, the Wildcats put the Captains down 1-2-3 in the top half of the inning. The storm had passed but the wind remained gusty, and a stiff breeze to the outfield intensified as Prestianni stepped to the plate. The All-Amercia slugger smacked her fourth homer of the tournament over the right-field wall, touching off a wild celebration circling home plate.
After Prestianni homered to make it 3-2, Hartmann singled, Sami Keim sacrificed her over to second, then Hartmann scored on Mixsell’s RBI single to center field. Moments later, Lepp delivered a two-run, game-clinching single through the left side of the infield.
Harvey earned the win to finish the season with a spotless 16-0 record. She scattered four hits and allowed one run while Velaski surrendered three hits, two walks and one earned run in a starting role.
"I couldn't be more proud of a group," said Wildcats coach Jackson Vaughan. "We've never had a team at Linfield where we've let them talk about a national championship in the preseason. With this team, we did because with how well we did last year we only lost one player, so really anything less than this would have been a little bit disappointing for them. They set their goals for that the very first day we met in January."
CNU had won seven straight playoff games before running into the Linfield buzzsaw. A day earlier, the Wildcats handed the Captains their first shutout since the third game of the season. Emerging from the winners bracket, CNU needed to only to defeat Linfield once to claim the university’s first NCAA title in any sport. It wasn’t to be.
‘CAT SCRATCH: Linfield is 3-0 in NCAA championship games in Salem, including the 2004 football title and the 2007 softball crown. . . the Wildcats outscored opponents 50-9 at the NCAA Finals and 99-9 in 11 NCAA postseason contests . . .under coach Jackson Vaughan, Linfield is 48-16 all-time in the NCAA playoffs, including 10-1 this season. . . named to the all-tournament team were Harvey, Velaski, Doucette, Prestianni, Keagbine Lepp and Jaydee Baxter. . .Hartmann, Keagbine, Hubrich, Velaski and Elise Karscig suited up in Linfield uniforms for the final time . . . the five seniors will receive their bachelor’s degrees in commencement exercises on Sunday.
MORE SCRATCH: As a team, the Wildcats hit .419 in the NCAA playoffs. . . Prestianni led the way with six home runs, 21 RBIs and a .567 batting average . . . Lepp hit .500 with 12 RBIs and a team-best nine stolen bases. . . Linfield pitchers combined to post a 0.88 ERA, holding opponents to a paltry .167 batting average. . . Velaski went 6-1 in the postseason with a 0.67 ERA and 38 strikeouts. . . Harvey was 3-0 in five playoff appearances with a 0.74 ERA, 11 strikeouts and no walks. . . . defensively, the Wildcats committed only six errors in 11 playoff contests. . . the Wildcats returned to Portland via a private charter jet . . . upon arriving back on the Linfield campus, the team was greeted by a large group of classmates, faculty, staff and well wishers. . . a special on-campus recognition is being planned to honor the 2011 national champions Friday at 4 p.m. in Ice Auditorium, located within Melrose Hall.
RECORDS CHECK: The school record book took a beating throughout the Wildcats’ extraordinary 2011 season. . . Doucette set new single-season records for batting average (.547), on-base percentage (.653) and walks (45). . . in addition to Lepp’s school- and NCAA-record 29 home runs, she set single-season marks for slugging percentage (1.089), hits (89), total bases (195) and RBI (94). . . leadoff hitter Hubrich tied the Linfield single-season record for at-bats, equaling the mark of 201 set in 2007 by another outstanding leadoff, Stephanie Rice. . . Velaski set single-season standards for appearances (35) and wins (25). . . Harvey is the only pitcher in Linfield history with 10 or more decisions to complete a season unblemished record (16-0).