A successful midseason trip to one of the nation’s softball hotbeds revealed just how good the 2014 Linfield Wildcats could become.
The ‘Cats nailed down the program’s 11th straight Northwest Conference championship and prevailed in the NWC Tournament, but there remained an air of disappointment at season’s end following a hasty exit from the NCAA Division III regional playoffs.
“Overall it was a great year, by a lot of accounts,” said Wildcats coach Jackson Vaughan.
Linfield dominated the NWC, winning the title by a wide six-game margin. The ‘Cats asserted their will once more in the NWC playoffs, turning back eager challengers in three run-rule shortened games. Yet for all of their accomplishments, the Wildcats came short of reaching their full potential after suffering back-to-back one-run losses to Claremont-Mudd-Scripps and Redlands in the NCAA regionals.
“This is one of our more disappointing playoff performances, especially considering how sharp we had been at the conference tournament,” said Vaughan. “To not play well in all facets of the game was definitely disappointing.”
Linfield began the spring with a senior-laden pitching staff. Karina Paavola, Shelby VandeBergh and Montana McNealy comprised the best unit in the conference, posting a 1.51 earned run average and amassing 291 strikeouts and 14 shutouts.
Senior infielders Katy Brosig and Ashley Garcia carried the team offensively. Brosig rebounded from a subpar junior season to hit a career-best .424 with 15 doubles and 32 RBI. Garcia made a seamless transition from second base to third while batting .409 with a team-best 51 RBI and six home runs.
“This was a team that continued to get better throughout the year, we peaked and played our best softball at the conference tournament,” said Vaughan. “Unfortunately, that didn’t carry over to the regional tournament, for whatever reason.”
On the lineup card, there were holes to fill in outfield and at third base as the season began.
Freshman Erin Kinney, penciled in as Garcia’s backup at third, emerged as an offensive weapon, hitting .385 with 10 doubles and four homers. She and fellow freshman Danielle Duman ended up sharing the starting position in left field.
Haylie Watson, the Wildcats’ fifth graduating senior, pounded a team-best nine home runs while producing a series of clutch hits over the latter third of the season.
“The seniors did a great job. They love the program and really bought in,” said Vaughan. “No matter how the season played out, they wanted to be remembered as great leaders and great teammates. The did an awesome job with our freshmen, welcoming them into the program and getting to know them as people and not just having that senior-freshman relationship.”
Daring to be great, Linfield made its first regular-season venture into the state of Texas, battling playoff-tested programs Texas-Tyler, Mary Hardin-Baylor and East Texas Baptist.
“We were pretty disappointed with the losses to Mary Hardin-Baylor (1-0 and 2-1), but the wins at Tyler (11-2) and East Texas Baptist (5-1) certainly verified that we were talented enough and had enough weapons to beat any team in the country on any given day. The trip really helped us to understand where we fit and what we were capable of.”
In recognition of their outstanding seasons, Garcia was appointed to the NFCA All-America first team while Paavola received a third team citation.
Six Wildcats – Garcia, Brosig, Paavola, Kinney, Yamamoto and leadoff hitter Grace Middelstadt were named to the all-West Region team. Another three – VandeBergh, catcher McKenna Spieth, and outfield Erin Carson, received appointments to the NWC all-star team. Vaughan was named NWC Coach of the Year for the 10th time in 11 seasons.
Lisa Yamamoto, a biology major with a 3.78 grade point average, garnered third team Capital One Academic All-America honors.