It’s challenging, but Linfield baseball fans shouldn’t allow a disappointing end to the year overshadow what was an overwhelmingly successful season on the diamond.
Though the Wildcats fell short in their quest to become back-to-back national champions, the 2014 season still witnessed Linfield capture a second consecutive Northwest Conference crown by a considerable margin, emerge victorious from a difficult regional tournament and finish as one of the top eight programs among the hundreds competing in NCAA Division III.
“The last two games of the season were a pretty bitter disappointment,” head coach Scott Brosius admitted. “To reach the Finals and then play probably our worst games of the year, back-to-back, was disappointing in that we didn’t get beat playing our best.
“It says a lot about our program and where we’re at now when we’re disappointed with reaching Appleton and not winning.”
Continuing to rely on a solid foundation of pitching and defense, the Wildcats compiled a 2.27 ERA – second lowest in the nation – and registered a single-season record 12 shutouts. Linfield also set a new standard for fielding percentage at .974, an impressive display of defense that also ranked second among Division III programs.
National Player and Pitcher of the Year Chris Haddeland (11-2, 1.16 ERA) and All-American and NWC Pitcher of the Year Aaron Thomassen (10-2, 2.08 ERA) garnered the most attention in recognition of season-long domination on the mound. But Linfield’s stellar staff was not complete without senior Zach Brandon, who recorded eight victories and a career-low 1.95 ERA.
Coming back healthy after undergoing elbow surgery, Zach Manley put together arguably the best season of his career with a 2.03 ERA in 15 relief appearances, while Cody Walker emerged as the team’s go-to closer, registering four saves in key games. Veterans Joseph Stevick, Justin Huckins and Garett Speyer added even more depth to Linfield’s strong bullpen.
Offensively, senior outfielder Nick Fisher paced the Wildcats near the top of the order, hitting for both average (.331) and power (.608) with 17 doubles, three triples and nine home runs en route to NWC Player of the Year honors. He totaled 21 multiple-hit games, led the team with 12 stolen bases, finished as the program’s career leader in triples (9) and was defensively perfect in right field.
“I’m really proud of ‘Fish’ in terms of what he did this year but also in where he’s come from as a freshman until now,” Brosius said. “He’s really worked hard to make himself into a great player, a great all-around player: offensively, defensively and around the bases.
“He had a tremendous year, but a truly unlucky year as well with a lot of line outs. The numbers don’t dictate how good he really was.”
Displaying real toughness, Jake Wylie came back from an early season injury to finish as the team leader in batting average (.342), slugging percentage (.650) and on-base percentage (.431).
Clayton Truex drove in a team-high 44 runs as part of a .341 average. Corey VanDomelen excelled in enhanced leadership roles as the leadoff hitter and second-year starting shortstop, and Jo Carroll became an important producer in the lineup while playing solid defense in the outfield, a new position for the natural third baseman.
Compiling a 37-9 record, including 33-5 within Division III and 22-2 in Northwest Conference games, the Wildcats did not lose very often and when they did, they bounced back well.
Recalling how Linfield lost Game 1 before coming back to win an important series against George Fox, Brosius commended his team for focusing on the opponent of the moment, not looking ahead and not looking behind.
“Our guys responded well all year long to the target on our back, understanding what that was and that we were going to see everybody’s best,” Brosius said. “Every game in itself is the most important game of the year, and I think we treated it that way.”
After finishing on top of the NWC for a second straight year, Linfield enjoyed home-field advantage during the regional round of the playoffs, getting past LeTourneau, Trinity and UW-Stevens Point – the latter twice – by a combined score of 12-5, including a pair of one-run victories.
At the Finals, the Wildcats uncharacteristically struggled defensively, losing two consecutive games to St. Thomas (10-0) and Emory (8-5) in what amounted to a quick trip to the championships. But as significant and consequential as they were, the overall takeaway from the season should not boil down to the final two games.
“It’s a special thing to go to Appleton,” Brosius said. “It’s a difficult thing to get back there. There are a lot of teams in Division III and it’s a hard road to go through.”
“I love the way this team took on that challenge this year. I love that they didn’t take anything for granted, worked hard for it, were prepared, and took that responsibility on. I thought we did a great job of trying to defend.”