How did the Linfield softball team go from fourth place in its own conference to third place in the nation?
By sticking together, following the leadership of its five seniors, and working to get better every day.
“This team made a commitment to have great team chemistry,” said Wildcats coach Jackson Vaughan. “Of all the teams we have had, this one is certainly among the top two or three in terms of chemistry and great senior leadership. It was a very unselfish team. Our team leaders really helped us through the tough times.”
In what played out as truly a season to remember, Linfield overcame some mid-season struggles to earn a spot in the four-team Northwest Conference Tournament, then emerged as one toughest teams to beat in the entire 62-team NCAA Division III playoff field.
Led by a dominating senior pitcher, a rapidly developing sophomore infield and a relentless work ethic, Linfield advanced all the way to the national semifinals, losing only to the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams, each by one run. The ‘Cats ended the year with 11 victories in 14 playoff games, all on the road, including six over Top 25 programs.
The Wildcats were a work in progress for the first half of the season while Vaughan and the coaching staff worked to blend in three new starting infielders, a new starting pitcher and a freshman starter in the outfield. At the same time, many of Linfield’s conference opponents were vastly improved. The Wildcats finished 17-11 in the NWC, ending the program’s dominating string of 11 consecutive conference championships.
“One of the hardest things the program has experienced the last three years has been carrying the weight of not being the team to break the streak of winning the conference championship,” said Vaughan. “When you’re always the team to beat, it’s easy to play tight at times. You put a lot of extra weight on your shoulders and this year’s group really fell victim to that.”
With so many new pieces to get acclimated, it’s easy to understand why Linfield experienced growing pains. As the conference became better and Linfield’s lineup underwent a youth movement, the Wildcats inevitably lost games to teams the program regularly prevailed over.
By mid-season as hopes of winning a record 12th championship faded, the Wildcats began to embrace the role of underdog rather than the favored team looking to fight off all challengers.
“We were able to play a lot more free and relaxed and that really improved our level of play,” said Vaughan. “The team started to believe that they had the ability to play with any team in the country. The kids really started to believe in themselves, Montana McNealy really started pitching well, and we got timely hitting throughout each stage of the playoffs.”
Once they reached the postseason, the Wildcats were battle tested. Linfield swept through the NWC Tournament with a 3-0 record, including a 3-2 win over regular-season champion Whitworth. At the NCAA Regionals in Decorah, Iowa, the ‘Cats dropped their first game to St. Thomas before rallying with four straight wins, including two in a row over favored host Luther, the No. 4 ranked team in the country.
Advancing to the Super Regionals in Pella, Iowa, Linfield won the best-of-three series over nationally ranked Central College, grabbing one of eight berths to the NCAA Finals at Salem, Virginia.
McNealy was pivotal to the Wildcats’ success. She racked up a school record 30 wins, 13 shutouts and 231 strikeouts while being named the NWC Pitcher of the Year, a first team all-West Region selection and Oregon’s Small College Female Athlete of the Year. Four other Wildcats – infielders Erin Kinney, Aliss Buss and Danielle Duman, plus outfielder Cheyenne Fletcher – joined McNealy on the all-region team.
In addition to Linfield’s five all-region picks, catcher McKenna Spieth, outfielder Erin Carson, designated player Erin Tauscher and infielder Kenzie Schmoll received honors on the NWC all-star roster.
Fletcher and Kinney led the team in batting average, both at .376. Carson was close behind at .356 and Buss hit .347 from the leadoff position. Danielle Duman hit 20 home runs and 65 RBI to finish among the top two nationally in both categories.
Duman and Schmoll were recognized for academic performance with spots on the Capital One Academic All-District 8 team. Schmoll, a 4.0 student majoring in math and computer science, went on to receive the prestigious Elite 89 Award, presented to the player with the highest grade point average participating in the NCAA Finals.
Vaughan, in his 14th season, picked up career victory No. 500 while taking a team to NCAA Finals for the sixth time, never finishing lower than fourth.