Record-breaking 42 victories. National Pitcher of the Year. NCAA Division III Championship. Linfield achieved all three and so much more in a season to remember.
Championed by three All-Americans but fueled by a preeminent sense of team, the Wildcats had both the talent and the mentality befitting of the nation’s top ballclub.
Chris Haddeland (15-1, 1.07 ERA, 96 Ks), Tim Wilson (.401, 87 hits, 31 SB) and Jake Wylie (.396, 66 RBI, 8 HR) posted astronomical numbers and were deservingly recognized as first team All-Americans.
But it was also the unselfish attitude and burning desire to succeed modeled by four seniors – Kyle Chamberlain, Jordan Harlow, Michael Hopp and Wilson – that helped the Wildcats erase the memory of last year’s playoff snub, bringing home the first NCAA title in program history (and third overall, counting NAIA triumphs in 1966 and ‘71) while setting numerous records along the way, including an all-time standard of 42 victories.
“This team hated to lose,” said head coach Scott Brosius. “That was a constant about them; they were bothered by every loss. It was a healthy thing because it was about their competitiveness…they carried a little chip on their shoulder.”
Perpetually undeterred by adversity and always confident of victory, Linfield never lost back-to-back games during its championship season. The ‘Cats won in a multitude of ways, too. They went 4-1 in games decided by one run and 24-3 in contests decided by five runs or more. In perhaps the most memorable game of the year, Linfield was shut out for six innings before mounting a four-run comeback against Wisconsin-Stevens Point that put the ‘Cats in the driver’s seat at the NCAA Finals.
Few outside the program could have predicted the ending the Wildcats enjoyed. Linfield was unranked to start the season, picked to finish third in the Northwest Conference and opened the year with a shutout loss.
But the ‘Cats bounced back with a vengeance, outscoring their opponents 30-4 over the final three games of the Arizona Desert Classic. And once the conference season got rolling, they never stopped. Linfield won every weekend of NWC action, including five sweeps, and captured the league title by four games with a 21-3 record.
By the middle part of the year, the secret was out: the Wildcats had secured their first No. 1 ranking of the DIII era and were well on their way to writing even more history.
One person who knew of Linfield’s potential from the get-go was Brosius.
“Before the season even started, I really liked this team,” Brosius said. Talent-wise, “I liked how the pieces fit in terms of flexibility. With guys who could play multiple positions, we could tweak the lineup when we needed to.
“Off the field, it was guys of great character…They believed in each other, they had a team-first mentality, they pulled for each other.”
The team pulled its way to Austin, where they had to get past a dangerous Trinity team two of out three times to earn a trip to the NCAA Finals.
Linfield saved its best for Appleton. The Wildcats got stellar starting pitching performances from Haddeland, Aaron Thomassen and Zach Brandon. Hitter after hitter proved clutch at the plate, from Wilson’s game-tying triple against UW-SP to Nick Fisher’s leadoff double and Chamberlain’s squeeze bunt against Southern Maine in the championship game.
“Sometimes it boils down to one hit or one play that one team makes and the other team doesn’t,” Brosius said when asked about the difference between this year’s team and past championship contenders. “This year we got the big hit.”
The only unfortunate part about a season like the Wildcats experienced in 2013 is how some performances are left out of the spotlight.
Fisher, second team All-Region honoree, began the year hitting in the bottom of the order, but worked hard to become a complete all-around player and took on a greater offensive role as a three-hole hitter by the end of the season.
Thomassen “had probably the greatest overlooked year that a guy’s ever had,” Brosius said. With a 12-0 record and 1.54 ERA against Division III opponents – the only loss coming to NAIA powerhouse and national runner-up Lewis-Clark State – Linfield’s No. 2 pitcher could easily go toe-to-toe with any other team’s ace. “He certainly wasn’t overshadowed in terms of coaches and players and his importance on this team.”
Two-time first team NWC all-star Kramer Lindell anchored the outfield in center and boasted a .389 average at the plate. First-year starting shortstop Corey VanDomelen held down one of the most important defensive positions and provided energy near the top of the order. Clayton Truex received honorable mention recognition on the all-conference team, but hit a hot streak in the postseason, batting .429 en route to all-tournament team honors in Appleton.
At the Austin Regional, Joe Stevick pitched five scoreless innings against sixth-ranked Trinity,and Hopp cashed in as an all-tournament selection with a 6-for-12 performance in a replacement starter role.
“You had guys that as the year went on, they did some of their best work when it counted the most,” Brosius said. “There was a real constant sense of what this team wanted to accomplish and how they competed, but they kept working at it and they improved along the way.”
This was a season Wildcat coaches, players and fans will not soon forget.
“It’s just been such a special year,” Brosius said. “When you’re going through it you realize that the team has the ability to finish like that. But when it actually happens, wow.”