Whoever coined the expression “Success breeds success,” may have been referring to the Linfield Wildcats softball program. At Linfield, a school with two recent NCAA Division III national-championship banners and a history of churning out All-Americans, perpetual success is expected and even demanded.
Given the program’s penchant for winning, it should come as no surprise that the Wildcats stand at the doorstep of inheriting a coveted Northwest Conference record. By extending their run of consecutive league titles to 12 this spring, Linfield can become the NWC’s most prolifically successful program, but do it, the ‘Cats must fend off stiff challenges from rivals Pacific, Pacific Lutheran and Whitworth.
Not surprisingly, the ‘Cats were picked to repeat as champions in a preseason vote of the NWC’s eight coaches.
“The talent is there,” to win another NWC championship, said Linfield skipper Jackson Vaughan. “We have to have our sophomore class of kids step up and fill some holes and take advantage of some opportunities.”
Five savvy seniors graduated off last season’s 34-7 team dominated the NWC field, winning the conference crown by a six-game margin. About the only thing that didn’t go right for the Wildcats was success in the NCAA regional playoffs, where the ‘Cats experienced a hasty exit following back-to-back one-run losses to Claremont and Redlands.
Gone are pitching mainstays Karina Paavola and Shelby VandeBergh and infield anchors Katy Brosig and Ashley Garcia and Hayley Watson.
The NWC is “constantly evolving,” said Vaughan. “Teams that were at the bottom have become more competitive now. At the same time, the contending teams are even more competitive.”
It all adds up to a proverbial minefield that the Wildcats must traverse in order to reach their goals of wearing the NWC crown, returning to the playoffs and breaking the NWC record of 11 straight titles set by Pacific Lutheran from 1987 until 1997.
The veteran pitching combo of Montana McNealy and Maddy Dunn give Linfield an excellent 1-2 pairing in the circle. McNealy, used primarily as closer during her first three seasons, has embraced the role as the club’s pitching ace. A junior, Dunn saw limited action last season as a result of lingering injuries but returns fully healthy and stronger than ever.
The pitching staff has been further strengthened by the addition of sophomore transfer Brooke Chapman, who went 7-1 as a freshman last season at Hamline Univerisity (Minn.), and Brynn Lio, who attended Oregon State University last year but did not compete in softball. Chapman is perhaps the most powerful pitcher among the four, according to Vaughan. Lio brings terrific athleticism to the position.
The infield is unquestionably young with three of the four positions affected by graduation. Erin Kinney moves from the outfield to third base and should be a mainstay at the hot corner. Melanie Oord, a freshman utility, provides backup. Alissa Buss, a crafty switch hitter with a strong arm, is the top candidate to take over at shortstop with fellow sophomore Kaela Ingram waiting in the wings.
Second base features returning starter Kenzie Schmoll, who brings dependable a glove and a blue collar mentality to the batter’s box. Two freshmen, Angela Leingang and Taylor Balfour, provide solid depth.
First base features multiple power-hitting options with senior Lisa Yamamoto contending with sophomore Danielle Duman for the starting nod. Yamamoto is a returning all-region player and a 2013 All-American, while Duman has shown steady development as a hitter and is poised for an outstanding season. Junior Jen Tautfest is also in the picture and could see the field as a pinch hitter or designated player.
One of the hardest-working Wildcats, incumbent catcher McKenna Spieth should log the bulk of the innings behind the plate. Backup Erin Tauscher continues to develop and could also see action. Two freshmen catchers – Jessica Woodruff and Emily Allen – likely will get their first tastes of college softball as pinch runners or situational hitters.
Linfield is talented and experienced in the outfield. All-region standout Grace Middlestadt returns for her fourth season in the starting lineup in center field. Backing up Middelstadt are Alex Andreotti, Taylor Balfour and Cheyenne Maio-Silva. In right field, three-year starter Erin Carson returns ready for a great senior season. Her backups include Cassie Finn and Jenica Nueffer. The candidates for the open position in left field are Kristen Vroom, Alexis Michael, Mikaela Viloria and Cheyenne Fletcher.
In addition to strong challenges from fellow Northwest Conference foes, the Wildcats have the opportunity to test themselves against top-tier competition when they visit southern California in late March for rematches with Claremont and Redlands.
Vaughan is nearing a significant coaching milestone as he closes in on career victory No. 500. Entering his 14th season with a career record of 484-110-1, Vaughan’s current winning percentage of .814 ranks sixth-highest all-time among NCAA Division III coaches.