In a season crammed with an array of records, awards and milestones, the only accomplishment seemingly left unfulfilled by the Linfield softball team was winning a second consecutive national championship.
While the Wildcats fell short of becoming the first team since 2005 and just the third NCAA Division III program ever to win back-to-back softball titles, players and the coaching staff felt few regrets upon returning from Salem, Va., site of the national championship tournament.
Winning the second-most games in program history, clinching a ninth consecutive conference title and third straight regional crown, Linfield was the team to beat throughout a dominating season. The Wildcats were ranked No. 1 throughout the majority of the year, winning 21 games in a row at one point.
“It’s disappointing to come so close to achieving your ultimate goal,” said Wildcats coach Jackson Vaughan. “But looking back at the big picture, we won 46 games, made a third straight appearance in the championship game with another gritty run through the losers bracket, and were very close to winning the championship again. You have to be very proud of what this team was able to accomplish.”
Linfield was especially impressive during the middle part of the season when they cruised to an 8-0 record on a spring break trip to California, plus beat Pacific Lutheran twice on its home field.
After holding off PLU to take the Northwest Conference title by one game, the Wildcats eventually lost twice to the Lutes at the four-team NWC Playoff Tournament, giving PLU the league’s automatic berth to the NCAA playoffs. Linfield received an at-large berth based on its glossy overall record and was sent to Bloomington, Ill., to compete in a six-team regional playoff hosted by Illinois Wesleyan University.
The late-season stumble in the conference tournament served as a wakeup call to the Wildcats, who faced the already daunting task of living up to a heap of expectations that naturally followed their brilliant 2011 national championship quest.
“I was impressed with our senior leadership,” said Vaughan, speaking of standouts Staci Doucette, Emilee Lepp, Lauren Harvey, Jaydee Baxter and Jordan Mixsell. “After hitting a low point in the season following the conference tournament, they really got everyone refocused and working together in the right direction.”
The importance of Linfield’s star-studded senior class couldn’t be overstated, said Vaughan.
“This was one of our greatest senior classes. Together, they demonstrated tremendous leadership, a genuine love for the game, and never got caught up in all the stats or records that come with being successful. They joined the program as freshmen and played prominent roles very early in their careers. From then on, they continued to push our team to compete at the highest levels possible.”
In Illinois, the ‘Cats went 4-0 at the Bloomington Regional, outscoring opponents 20-2. Harvey finished the tournament with a 2-0 record and 0.00 ERA while Doucette powered the Wildcat at the plate with a .444 average. Lepp earned top honors as the regional’s most outstanding player, hitting .400 with seven RBI and two home runs.
At the NCAA Finals in Virginia, Linfield went 4-2, losing only to PLU, 5-3 and 3-0 in the championship game.
Doucette, Lepp, Karleigh Prestianni and Karina Paavola earned special citations on the NFCA All-America team. Baxter (first team) and Prestianni (third team) each received Academic All-America honors from the College Sports Information Directors of America.
Doucette and Lepp ended her storied careers as the No. 1 and No. 2 all-time home run hitters in Division III. Doucette hit 73 homers over four seasons while Lepp added 68 more. Doucette, a four-time first team All-American, also set the NCAA career standard for RBI (259) while Lepp became the all-time leader in runs scored (247) and at-bats (687). Harvey set the NCAA pitching mark for best winning percentage, going 54-4 across four seasons.
In addition to his cast of All-Americans, Vaughan noted the steady improvement of sophomore Shelby VandeBergh and freshman Grace Middlestadt as vital to the Wildcats’ push to the championship final.
“Shelby gave us some quality innings at different points of the season and became a very solid third pitching option. Grace really peaked at the end of the year.”
As a team, Linfield hit .335 for the season, smacking a nation-leading 75 home runs while also stealing a gaudy 111 bases.
For his part, Vaughan achieved career victory No. 400 while also coaching his 500th game.