It’s not how a team starts but how it finishes that matters most.
Underestimated largely due to its youth, the overachieving Linfield softball team caught fire over the second half of the 2016 season, winning 10 of its final 12 games to reach the NCAA Division III Super Regionals. Linfield’s Cinderella pumpkin ride ended in a best-of-three series loss to eventual national champion Texas-Tyler.
Posting a 32-16 overall record and 18-10 mark in the Northwest Conference, the Wildcats shared second place with George Fox in a tight league race. From there, Linfield swept through the NWC Tournament with three straight wins, including a come-from-behind 7-6 victory over regular-season champion Whitworth. That earned the ‘Cats a return visit to Whitworth’s Diane Marks Field for the NCAA Spokane Regional Tournament.
It was there that Linfield showed its true mettle against regional’s favored team, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. Trailing 5-4 in the championship game going into the seventh inning, Linfield produced just enough offense to secure a 6-5 extra-innings win that clinched a second-straight berth in the Super Regionals.
“The team really stuck with the program recipe of working hard and trying to get better everyday,” said Wildcats coach Jackson Vaughan. “Our young players grew a lot throughout the year. Shelby Saylors, Jacinda Swiger, Paige Smotherman, Cheyenne Fletcher and Melanie Oord were players who really stepped up and pushed our team to a playoff level this year.”
Through the first 10 games, the Wildcats looked like anything but a playoff-worthy team, producing a pedestrian 6-4 record.
“We improved in every facet of the game but we certainly saw critical improvements with our hitting and pitching – the two most important elements of the game,” said Vaughan. “Shelby, Maddy Dunn and Brynn Lio really improved as a pitching staff throughout the year and gave us a chance to win almost every game we played. Offensively, we really struggled at times early in the year but the consistency of Melanie, Alissa Buss and Kenzie Schmoll all year along with the remarkable improvement of Jacinda, Cheyenne and Emily Allen, made us a pretty formidable offense at the end of the year.”
In the final statistical analysis, Linfield led the NWC in batting average (.334), runs scored (151), hits (257), doubles (45), RBIs (129) and extra-base hits (71). Oord was the conference leader in RBIs (49) and ranked second in average (.445), Saylors shared the conference lead in pitching victories with 19 while Buss topped NWC stats with 19 drawn walks.
Perhaps most revealing, the Wildcats were 12-9 against teams that qualified for the NCAA playoffs, including a combined 8-4 record against Whitworth and George Fox, two of the NWC’s top clubs.
Oord’s sudden emergence as an offensive weapon in the cleanup spot and Saylors’ ability to perform like a polished veteran during her rookie season proved pivotal to the Wildcats’ success.
“Melanie was tremendous for us all season long,” said Vaughan. “You don’t expect a player to go from being a backup third baseman to an All-American outfielder in a single season. Shelby really stepped up for the team and competed at a very high level every time she pitched.”
Swiger paid big dividends during her first season in a Linfield uniform. The speedy outfielder hit .400 at the top of the batting order and produced 13 stolen bases.
Fletcher, the Wildcats’ multi-skilled center fielder, hit .358 with 15 doubles, three home runs and 10 stolen bases. Buss, a junior shortstop, hit .395 with 16 RBIs and 11 stolen bases.