One year removed from a run to the national championship finals, the Linfield Wildcats find themselves retooling for what should be another rugged survival-of-the-fittest battle in the Northwest Conference.
Last year, for the first time in 12 seasons, Linfield did not win the NWC title, instead finishing fourth. Yet the Wildcats played their best softball in late April and into May, winning conference, regional and super regional tournaments on the way to capturing a third-place trophy at the NCAA Finals.
With all-star mainstays Montana McNealy and Grace Middelstadt now serving as assistant coaches, and key seniors McKenna Spieth, Lisa Yamamoto and Erin Carson also graduated, the Wildcats must reinvent themselves once again.
Never one to push the panic button, Linfield coach Jackson Vaughan remains cautiously optimistic heading into a transitional season.
“We approach every year the same way. The season is a process and the goal is to be peaking at the end of the year,” said Vaughan, who begins his 15th season.
After a quick trip to California for a pair of out-of-conference doubleheaders to start the spring, the Wildcats dive directly into NWC play against George Fox, a team considered among the possible favorites to claim the conference crown.
According to Vaughan, the NWC “may be as good overall as it has been in my years as coach. There are three high-quality teams in Whitworth, George Fox and Pacific that return the bulk of their roster from last year. PLU had a good recruiting year and is going to be much improved. Lewis & Clark, UPS and Willamette are also making progress. The conference has a lot of quality depth.”
Linfield’s biggest question mark is its pitching staff, which Vaughan believes collectively has “great potential,” but lacks a clear-cut No. 1 ace going into the season. Three pitchers – Maddy Dunn, Brooke Chapman and Brynn Lio – return with experience and are joined by a trio of promising rookies in Shelby Saylors, Lauren Harding and Tanna Benson.
“We’re going to pitch by committee, at least in the early part of the season,” said Vaughan. “All six are hopefully going to continue to get better as the season moves along.”
With Spieth lost to graduation, the Wildcats are relatively inexperienced behind the plate. Junior Erin Tauscher, a NWC all-star as a utility player last season, is the early frontrunner at catcher. She is being challenged by returners Emily Allen and Jessica Woodruff, and freshman Megan Verbout.
Three NWC all-stars return to solidify the infield. Danielle Duman will anchor first base with Jen Hiatt and Saylors providing backup. Kenzie Schmoll is back to cover second base with Katrina Reichenbach and Angela Leingang lending support. Alissa Buss is expected to a play the bulk of the innings at shortstop with veteran Kaela Ingram coming off the bench. Ingram is also an option at third base, but faces a strong push from freshmen Paige Smotherman and Benson.
Young in places, the outfield appears chock with talent. Kinney and Fletcher are the Wildcats’ most experienced outfielders. Melanie Oord, Kristen Vroom, Alexis Michael, Jenica Neuffer, Mikaela Viloria all have at least one season’s investment in the program and could vie for action. Freshmen Maddy Colson and Darian Stedman offer tantalizing speed and athleticism and are knotted in a three-way battle with junior Alex Andreotti for the starting nod in center field. Competing for the spot in left field are Kinney and Michael, plus newcomers Jacinda Swiger and Abi Drotzmann. Right field is being contested by Oord, Vroom, Leingang, Viloria and Neuffer.
Fletcher, Kinney, Allen or freshman Alexis Kron could each work their way into the lineup as the Wildcats’ designated player.
Assuming the club’s defense and hitting produce as expected, the success rate of the pitching staff is pivotal to reclaiming the NWC trophy and returning to the national stage.
“Our pitching will determine how far we go,” said Vaughan, boiling his outlook down to one sentence.
“Athletically, we should be as good or better as we have ever been. Some of our freshmen are going to be dangerous on the basepaths, and hitting-wise, we could develop into an offensive team that has a nice mix of speed and power.”