By Robert Husseman • Sports Editor • 

Circling back into contention

There is no such thing as an underdog program that has won its conference nine straight seasons.

And yet, there was plenty of doubt surrounding Linfield softball within the Northwest Conference in 2013.

“We weren’t picked to win the conference,” Wildcats coach Jackson Vaughan said. “We were really young. We didn’t know how good we’d be. Maybe we overachieved.”

Overachieving, in this case, refers to a 36-8 overall record, a 25-3 NWC record, a 10th consecutive league title and an appearance in the NCAA Division III Tyler (Texas) Regional.

For all the success Linfield had in Vaughan’s 12-year tenure – the Wildcats won Division III national titles in 2007 and 2011 and were national runners-up in 2010 and 2012 – the 2013 season could have felt like a letdown.

“We weren’t as talented as we were in (2010, 2011 and 2012),” Vaughan said, “but the kids were working as hard as ever.”

That hard work has given way to optimism in 2014. Linfield must replace just two starters in the field and returns all four pitchers from its 2013 campaign, with a large class of freshmen pushing the upperclassmen.

Linfield ace pitcher Karina Paavola, winner of the college’s Vern Marshall Award and the Northwest Conference Pitcher of the Year, returns for her senior season. The Kelso, Wash. native went 22-4 in 27 appearances in 2013, striking out 133 (against 56 walks) and allowing an opponents’ batting average of .206.

Junior Shelby VandeBergh posted a 2.12 earned-run average in 20 appearances (18 starts) as the Wildcats’ second starter in 2013. Montana McNealy, a junior from Aloha, struck out 62 batters and walked 10 in a closer’s role last season, with sophomore Maddy Dunn (0.82 ERA) making 18 appearances in relief.

Health is an obstacle in the early going, as McNealy is recovering from a hip injury and Paavola remains hampered by nagging injuries dating back to last season.

“They’re all doing really good things,” Vaughan said. “They’re not consistent enough to where we want to be.”

The infield will no longer feature third baseman Karleigh Prestianni, referred to by Vaughan as “one of the top five players we’ve ever had.” Prestianni capped her Linfield career in 2013 with 52 total home runs (tied for fourth in NCAA Division III history) and 225 runs batted in (fourth).

Senior Ashley Garcia (.429 batting average in 2013) moves over from second base to replace Prestianni, with freshman Kenzie Schmoll expected to take over at second base. National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-American Lisa Yamamoto returns from an outstanding season as a designated player; senior Haylie Watson returns at first base and senior Katy Brosig returns at shortstop.

NFCA second-team All-American Erin Carson will again hold down right field for the Wildcats. The senior from Camas, Wash. led the Northwest Conference with a .496 batting average and ranked second in on-base percentage (.529). Center fielder Grace Middelstadt (.327, 33 stolen bases in 2013) was a first-team all-Northwest Conference selection. Freshman Danielle Duman, a Eugene native who “has tons of potential,” according to Vaughan, will begin the season as the starting left fielder; 2013 NWC honorable mention Megan Wallo has graduated.

Senior McKenna Spieth, a second-team all-Northwest Conference selection in 2013, returns as Linfield’s starting catcher. Erin Tauscher, a freshman from Camas, Wash., will be her backup.

Experience rules with the Wildcats, but a 12-person freshman class figures to make an impact early and often in 2014.

“You’re just teaching all the time,” Vaughan said. “The class is awesome in terms of work ethic.”

Linfield captured seven of eight first-place votes in the Northwest Conference coaches poll, released on Jan. 29. Whitworth, a team referred to by Vaughan as “on the rise,” was expected to finish in second place, with Pacific taking third in the poll.

“The conference has gotten better every year for the last several years,” Vaughan said. “It’s much better than it used to be. The bottom teams can beat you now. That wasn’t always the case.”

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