Bloomington Regional Website
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – The Linfield College Wildcats will have the opportunity to defend their NCAA Division III softball championship after all.
All-Americans Staci Doucette, Emilee Lepp made sure of it.
Each clobbered home runs after the Wildcats weathered an early storm with a timely pitching change on the way to knocking off top-seeded Illinois Weslayan 6-2 on Mother’s Day in the championship game of the NCAA Division III Bloomington Regional at IWU Field.
The Wildcats emerge as champions of the eight-team Bloomington Regional, earning one of eight coveted berths to the NCAA Finals in Salem, Va. Linfield is making its third consecutive appearance in the Finals and fifth in program history.
Linfield (42-5) advances to play Ohio Northern (30-13) Friday at 8 a.m. PDT in the opening game of the eight-team national championship tournament.
Fighting its way through the losers bracket, Illinois Wesleyan eliminated Carthage Sunday morning before facing the daunting task of trying to beat Linfield on consecutive days in order to claim the regional title. The Titans end their season at 39-8.
Both starting pitchers were chased from game before the contest was 15 minutes old.
Taking advantage of a hit and two Linfield fielding errors in the opening frame, Illinois Wesleyan loaded the bases on Wildcats starter Lauren Harvey. But Karina Paavola (Jr., Kelso, Wash.) came into right the ship, coaxing Chloe Montgomery to pop out for the third out.
Linfield responded right away with a run-scoring triple from Karleigh Prestianni (Sr., Grants Pass, Ore.). Doucette drew a walk off IWU all-star Molly McCready, who was pitching her third game in two days. Prestianni’s triple resulted in a change in the circle, as Alyssa Vorel replaced a weary McCready in an effort to limit more damage.
The Wildcats kept the pressure on as Doucette blasted a towering home run to left field in the third inning, her 18th of the season and 71st of her NCAA record-setting career.
With the Titans remaining uncomfortably within reach, Lepp delivered the game’s knockout punch in the fifth. Jordan Mixsell singled to lead off the inning and Grace Middelstadt (Soph., Battle Ground, Wash.) drew a walk, putting two runners on base. Lepp then swatted her second home run in as many days, this time to center field.
IWU got its only runs in the bottom of the seventh when Audra James singled with a bunt and Keri Leach followed with her eighth home run of the season. But for the low-scoring Titans, a six-run deficit was too much to overcome. Paavola soon put the game in the books with her eighth strikeout of the game, setting down Allie Riordan swinging.
Both teams recorded six hits in the game, but the Titans stranded nine runners to the Wildcats’ two. Linfield was charged with four errors in the game, but none proved costly.
Paavola collected the victory in relief to improve to 22-2 for the season. McCready absorbed the loss to fall to 18-5.
“We just knew that we needed to do what we do,” said Wildcats coach Jackson Vaughan. “We won (Saturday’s game against IWU) with only two hits but we got seven walks which was a big part of the win. Today, we put together some things early on with some bunts. Then we got the big home runs from Staci and Emilee, which is more our style. If we go down, we’ll go down playing our game.”
The Wildcats went 4-0 at the regional tournament for the third straight season.
“Anytime your team can get to where we are at, you’ve got to be extremely happy. Winning a regional championship has been harder this year, for sure, because we obviously lost some really good players from last year. All the expectations weigh on you throughout the year. We have some girls who have played a lot of games over four years, so the grind has gotten to us a little bit.”
In the end, it was the two senior All-Americans, Lepp and Doucette, plus courageous pitching by Paavola and Harvey, that put the Wildcats over the top.
“The last few weeks we’ve pitched it really well and played good enough defense and got some timely hitting when we’ve needed it."
‘CAT SCRATCH: Linfield outscored its four regional opponents 20-2 . . . in the span of nine seasons, Linfield has assembled a regional playoff record of 31-10, including regional championships in 2006, 2007, 2010, 2011 and 2012. . . a total of 10 mothers and four grandmothers were on hand in Bloomington to enjoy Mother’s Day with their daughters and granddaughters. . . together, Doucette (256) and Lepp (248) have combined to drive in over 500 runs over the course of their four-year careers. . . Harvey finished the tournament with a 2-0 record and a 0.00 ERA. . . Paavola recorded 21 strikeouts and a 0.98 ERA in three appearances. . . Doucette led Linfield with a .444 batting average during the four tournament games. . . Lepp led the regional with seven RBI and four runs scored while registering a .400 average. . . IWU's late-inning homer snapped a Linfield streak of 46 consecutive innings without allowing a run in regional competition.
ALL-TOURNAMENT TEAM: Lepp received special distinction as the tournament’s most outstanding player. Doucette, Paavola and Harvey was also appointed to the all-tournament team.
THIS DAY IN LINFIELD SOFTBALL HISTORY: Linfield earned its first-ever berth to the NCAA Finals on Mother's Day in 2006, beating West Region tournament favorite La Verne twice on the final day. After losing their first regional game to Hardin-Simmons, the Wildcats won six straight playoff games to advance, despite a beat up roster that had several starters sidelined.
Bloomington Regional Champions!
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