"I was just an average hitter, I just hit a few home runs here and there."
- Karleigh Prestianni on her high school career.
Though Karleigh Prestianni admits to not being the most well-rounded player when she arrived at Linfield College four years ago, Wildcats coach Jackson Vaughan saw her potential long before she developed.
“We had high expectations of Karleigh because she came from a high-level summer program with (major-college talent),” he recalls. “We thought she could be every bit as good as those players were.”
Vaughan’s prediction proved correct and the results were unlike anything seen before at Linfield.
Prestianni is not only one of the most accomplished softball players ever to play at Linfield, but she has etched her name into the national record books as well. The Division III leader in career home runs among active players, she also sports a career batting average of .436, with 255 hits, 172 runs scored, 224 RBI and an on-base percentage of .513. She has never been caught stealing a base (17-for-17), boasts a .958 career fielding percentage and has struck out just 34 times in 699 plate appearances. At 197 and counting, Prestianni is on pace to set Linfield the career record for games played. All in all, she is near the top of just about every major offensive statistical category.
In 2010, Prestianni hit .424 with 61 RBI, 46 runs scored and an NCAA-freshman-record 19 home runs in 48 games. The ‘Cats lost in dramatic fashion in the NCAA title game that year in the bottom of the seventh inning, but for her performance Prestianni received the nod as a first team NFCA All-American.
“The whole year she was unfazed,” Vaughan says of her remarkable freshman campaign. “She fit in with the upper-classmen right away and everything gelled.”
“Jackson is just a genius hitting coach and he made us into the hitters that we are,” she says, crediting her early success to the instruction she received upon entering Linfield’s program. “Most of us don’t arrive as great hitters,” a tip of the hat to Vaughan’s uncanny skill at developing raw talent and bringing out the best in his players.
“I didn’t expect to jump in and be a starter, because we had a senior All-American at third base,” Prestianni remembers, referencing 2011 graduate Emily Keagbine. Prestianni played primarily first base and designated hitter in 2010, but a late-inning switch in the fourth game of the season foreshadowed the eye-opening success that was to come. In the sixth inning of a blowout against George Fox, Prestianni moved to third base and Keagbine was shifted to shortstop.
“Emily is the best infielder I have ever been around and she taught me a lot about the game,” Prestianni says of one of her best friends. “I really saw who she was leadership wise and I tried to model myself after that.”
Playing under the spotlight
With a freshman season to remember, Prestianni had established herself as one of the top players in the Northwest Conference and all of Division III. “After my freshman success, each year got a little bit harder,” Prestianni says, looking back. “People know what you can hit and coaches try to pinpoint your weaknesses.”
Though Prestianni hit five fewer home runs in 2011, nearly all of her other statistics were on par with her phenomenal 2010 line. As conference play ended and the ‘Cats prepared for another deep playoff run, Prestianni was voted to the first-team all-NWC. Linfield swept five games in the NWC Tournament before traveling to Pella, Iowa, to participate in the regional tournament. Hungry to avenge the championship game defeat the previous year, Linfield kept its winning streak going with four more victories to advance to the NCAA Finals.
Prestianni showed maturity and leadership during the Wildcats’ run, explaining that the pressure never became unmanageable. “Freshman year it was kind of overwhelming,” she says. “But after that, I just realized you just have to do what you can do for your team.”
The Wildcats lost just once during the 2011 playoff run, highlighted by one of the most memorable moments in Linfield history.
On May 24, Prestianni stepped to the plate to lead off the sixth inning of a 2-2 deadlock in the NCAA Division III national championship game. With the weight of the entire program and to a certain extent Linfield as a whole on her shoulders, she delivered a solo blast over the right-field fence that proved to be the title-clinching run.
The championship game featured a lengthy delay thanks to a thunderstorm that could have easily broken players’ focus. “We had a big team meeting, and she was our first hitter after the break,” Vaughan remembers. Prestianni came through when her team needed it the most, and the rest is history.
Prestianni’s postcard home run capped the second national title run in five years and served as a testament to the legacy of one of the greatest athletes in Linfield College history.
“Her success in the championship game definitely stands out as one of the most memorable moments,” says her mother, Shawna.
The ‘Cats marched back to the NCAA title game last spring, only to suffer a bitter 3-0 defeat to NWC rival Pacific Lutheran. On top of that, Linfield graduated a talented cast of seniors, including All-Americans Staci Doucette and Emilee Lepp. During their careers, the sluggers combined for an unfathomable 141 home runs, two big reasons why Linfield had evolved into an offensive juggernaut.
While many wondered if Linfield could recover from the heavy losses to graduation, the Wildcats brushed aside all doubt. “In some ways, losing talent makes you want to be better than the year before,” Prestianni says about the transition between seasons. “When people said we weren’t going to be as good, that’s what motivated us to work harder.”
Vaughan cites Prestianni’s ability to adapt and her acceptance of the incoming class as some of her most valuable traits. “A lot of people she played with her whole career graduated and there were lots of new faces,” Vaughan says. “She adjusted really well and become a great leader.”
After winning the 2013 NWC tournament, Linfield stands poised for another deep playoff run that it hopes will end with an encore of the 2011 finale. “We just go out every day and try to be the best team we can be,” Prestianni says. “We have to focus on what we can do to get better every day.”
Just as Linfield’s football team operates with the overarching theme of ‘Catdome,’ the softball team has embraced a similar mantra in ‘Catball.’ More than just a catchy slogan, Catball has become a way of life for players, their families and fans alike. The close-knit community is among the special traits unique to Linfield’s small-college culture. “How close the Catball families are from Day 1 has been memorable,” Shawna Prestianni says, reflecting on her involvement in her daughter’s college career. “It is a small-college experience even for (the parents), and it was really nice to be more involved and to get to know all of these people.”
“My parents have been very supportive and my mom has definitely been a huge role model,” Prestianni explains. “My dad (Gary) has made me the athlete that I am because he always pushed me to get better and to work hard.”
Shawna and Gary attend every game and have made watching their daughter compete a top priority. “Going to the regionals and nationals all four years has made it very expensive,” Shawna says with a chuckle. “You know this isn’t going to be forever. It goes by fast so you don’t want to miss anything.”
Prestianni’s teammates recognize that her work ethic has been the bedrock of her success, but for some, it’s her kindness and personality both on and off the field that have made the biggest impact. “People look up to her not just for her amazing accolades, but for her leadership and team-first attitude,” says fellow senior and roommate Megan Wallo, who transferred to Linfield from Portland State at the beginning of her junior year. Wallo credits Prestianni with making her feel like part of the family. “I never thought I would find a friendship as amazing as I have with Karleigh. To list all of our memorable moments would take a lifetime,” Wallo says. “Her outgoing personality is contagious and everyone wants to be around her.”
“Karleigh leads by how hard she pushes herself in games and at practice, and through the experience she has had,” fellow teammate and pitcher Shelby VandeBergh notes. “Knowing she’s in the lineup gives me a lot of confidence on the mound.”
“Through the whole college experience, Karleigh has developed many lifelong friends,” her mother says. “She has had good role models, especially Coach Vaughan. He brings out the best in all of them, not just as players, but as people.”
A lasting legacy
When Prestianni graduates this spring with a degree in finance, her lasting impact on the program won’t be forgotten.
“Karleigh is someone who has fun but has a very professional attitude,” Vaughan says. “How she plays the game, her even-keel approach and leadership, and how well she has gotten along with the underclassmen and made them a part of things are what really stand out.”
A likely four-time NFCA All-American and the 2013 NWC Player of the Year, Prestianni has also been recognized for her academic achievements. “Last year when she was a (CoSIDA) Academic All-American, I was very proud,” Shawna recalls. “That really reinforces why you decide to go to a school.”
“Karleigh is a very bright and intellectual person,” Wallo says. “She takes great pride in succeeding in school and excelling at anything she does. I know she can and will accomplish all of her goals in life.”
Prestianni enrolled in a special January Term finance course, travelling to New York City for the opportunity to meet with numerous professionals in the industry. Though not yet entirely sure where she wants to work, Prestianni says she plans to move initially to the Beaverton area.
“She’s going to do great,” Vaughan says of Presitanni’s long-range prospects. “Karleigh has the work ethic and is someone who knows how to have high expectations of herself and how to do things the right way.”
Prestianni’s career at Linfield can be termed unique and historic, but best of all serves as a prime example of maximizing the college experience. She’s a NCAA champion, All-America athlete and student whose positive personality influences lives of those around her. Ultimately, she serves as an inspiration to those who have seen her play and will soon apply those same traits in the professional world beyond Linfield.
– Evan O’Kelly ’13