“It was a great fight.”
Brief yet all-encompassing, those words from head coach Scott Brosius are perfect for the Linfield Wildcats, who overcame a 2-4 start to the Northwest Conference season to return to the postseason for the fifth time in six years. Battling through a brutal losers bracket schedule due to severe weather, the team made it to the final day of the Tyler, Texas Regional, finishing the 2015 season two wins away from advancing to a third straight NCAA Finals appearance.
“You want to see a team achieve what it’s capable of achieving and not leave anything on the table, and this team did that. We can look back with no regrets. They played their hearts out,” Brosius said. “We got dealt a tough hand in Texas in terms of travel and game scheduling. But not once did guys succumb to the idea that it wasn’t our year. They never gave up.”
Complete appreciation for Linfield’s late-season surge isn’t possible without considering a pivotal weekend in early March. After suffering back-to-back series losses to Pacific Lutheran and Puget Sound and dropping a Game 3 to Lewis & Clark, the team trekked to Arizona for a tough slate against four nonconference opponents. Linfield lost the trip’s opening game to St. Thomas in an 11-inning heartbreaker, but the way in which the Wildcats responded to that defeat completely altered the course of the year.
“The focus, intensity, and everything they brought to that game was what we needed, and they never lost it from that point,” Brosius said. “We finished that weekend 3-1 and the team changed. They really found themselves, bonded as a group and found that toughness they needed to compete in the conference the rest of the way.”
Linfield won its five remaining conference series, ending the regular season tied for second place. Though the Wildcats were eliminated on the second day of the inaugural NWC Tournament, the NCAA baseball committee deemed the team’s overall resume worthy of an at-large berth in the regional playoffs.
A first-round postseason loss to Trinity dropped Linfield into win-or-go home territory. Determined to keep their season alive, the ‘Cats won three elimination games - including two contests started and completed on different days and a third wrapping up after midnight - to earn a rematch with Trinity, which the Tigers won 7-3.
Pitching helped get the Wildcats to the postseason, and nearly got them back to the national tournament. Senior starters Chris Haddeland, the NWC Pitcher of the Year, and Aaron Thomassen capped off incredible careers by combining for 16 wins, eight complete games and five shutouts. Riley Newman went 3-2 in his first season as Game 3 starter, while Garrett Miller, Cody Walker, Joseph Stevick and Justin Davis tallied key relief innings that factored into Linfield’s 33-15 record and 3.01 staff ERA.
With co-captains Corey VanDomelen and Eric Lawson resuming key responsibilities at shortstop and third base, and David Mason and Ben Andrews taking on new roles at second and first base, Linfield’s infield was rock solid.
Brosius heralded Lawson as a golden-glove type player in the hot corner, considered VanDomelen to be one of the best shortstops in the region, applauded Mason’s range and ability to turn the double play and commended Andrews for his easy transition from third to first base, giving the Wildcats another great athlete in the infield. Talented catchers Chance Laboda and Jake Gellos split time behind the plate.
Outfielders Finn McMichael, Jo Carroll and Scott Hilpert filled big holes in the outfield, helping the Wildcats attain a .973 fielding percentage that ranked third in all of NCAA Division III.
With youth factoring heavily into the offensive lineup, some “peaks and valleys” in production predictably occurred. But the team’s .287 overall average was on par with last season, and with the help of 65 stolen bases, Linfield outscored its opponents 287-184.
VanDomelen (.363) and Lawson (.318) supplied all-conference worthy performances as the team’s top two hitters, while leadoff man McMichael came on strong over the second half of the year to give Linfield a tough look at the first through third spots in the order. Filling out the heart of the lineup, Andrews (.303) and Carroll (.306) combined to drive in 78 RBI on 66 hits, including 37 for extra bases.
“Jo took another step in terms of providing quality at-bats, and in the danger he provided us in the lineup with the ability to provide power,” Brosius said. “He came up with some huge at-bats the last couple of weekends leading up to the regional tournament.”
Short on experience but not on courage, Ryan Ross and Gellos, along with newcomers John Carroll and Mason, supplied quality at-bats, particularly in regional tournament action.
Linfield loses a great deal of talent on the mound due to graduation, but should remain a team to be reckoned with due to the amount of talent and experience that returns in 2016. Linfield’s 25-man active playoff roster included seven freshmen and four sophomores, and many more underclassmen garnered valuable experience in the junior varsity ranks.
“Beyond the varsity, in looking at the depth of this program, that’s what it’s been built on: younger guys coming in and working hard,” Brosius said. “It was very rewarding to see the level of commitment the players gave to the program, themselves and their teammates. They never accepted anything but fighting as best as they could.”