Linfield softball takes NWC tournament
The Wildcats clinched their 10th consecutive Northwest Conference Championship earlier this month, and their reward was to host the conference tournament. Linfield beat Pacific 3-2 in the Saturday afternoon and crushed Whitworth 12-0 in its evening game to make the conference tournament finals, where they faced rival Pacific Lutheran.
Sunday, and for the fifth time this season, Linfield got past the Lutes — the defending national champions — by a score of 3-2 to win the conference tournament. With the win, the Wildcats secured the conference’s automatic invitation to the NCAA Division III regional playoffs.
“We were the only team to enter the tournament knowing that if we lost the tournament, we still had a reasonable chance of making the playoffs,” Linfield coach Jackson Vaughan said. “Where all the other teams knew they had to win the tournament to make it, so they had more to play for.”
Regardless of the math, the Wildcats still came out on top, and it was the pitching of Karina Paavola and Shelby VandeBergh that insured Linfield’s playoff chances.
Paavola led the tournament off with a precise performance. In the Wildcats’ win over Pacific, the final score was not indicative of Paavola’s outing. Paavola, a junior, banked a dozen strikeouts and earned her 20th win of the season against the Boxers in seven innings. She allowed four hits and four walks.
Vaughan said he was happy with the performance of his veteran pitching staff.
“Karina pitched really well against Pacific,” Vaughan said. “She was pretty much in control the whole time. She got in some jams, but got out, and was dominant 80 percent of the time.”
With Paavola dominating, it allowed Linfield to mount a comeback after trailing 1-0 and 2-1. Grace Middelstadt walked and advanced to third on a wild pitch. Sophomore Lisa Yamamoto brought her home to even the game at one. Karleigh Prestianni gave the Wildcats the lead after an RBI double to left field.
“We did okay (offensively),” Vaughan said. “We didn’t do great, but we faced some good pitching.”
In Linfield’s blowout against Whitworth, both the offense and pitching worked together to shut out the Pirates. VandeBergh held the Whitworth to two hits with three strikeouts and one walk. She brought her record to 12-3 for the season.
The Wildcats were led by Prestianni and sophomore Erin Carson. Both had three-hit afternoons. Prestianni had four RBIs, while Carson had two runs scored. Ashley Garcia chipped in with two hits and three RBIs including a two-run triple.
Linfield had a six-run barrage in both the second and fourth innings to beat the Pirates. It was Carson that put the exclamation point on the game in the fourth inning.
Carson crushed a Taylor Gilbert pitch to the left field wall, which scored Garcia. McKenna Spieth drove a RBI single to center field to increase the Wildcat lead to 12-0.
“We just hit really well in that game,” Vaughan said. “Shelby pitched really well and was finding her spots. Overall, both sided worked well together to get the win.”
Six days after Linfield closed out the regular season against the Lutes, here they were again on Sunday, this time, in the conference tournament finals.
It was a close game, but for the third time in six days, Linfield bested the Lutes and likely eliminated the defending national champions from playoff consideration.
Pacific Lutheran took the lead in the top of the first inning after Paavola walked Amanda Hall and gave up a RBI single to Kaaren Hatlen. The Wildcats brought the game even at one on a towering homerun by Yamamoto (13) to start the second inning.
Hatlen gave the Lutes the lead back with a leadoff solo homerun to begin the third inning. Prestianni tied the game at two after her run-scoring double in the bottom half of the third inning. In Linfield’s half of the sixth inning, it was Garcia, again coming through for the second straight day in a crucial moment. Prestianni led off the inning with a single, and got to third on a hit from Yamamoto. Garcia took advantage and drove the ball to left-center field to send home Prestianni for the winning run.
“It took us a while to get going,” Vaughan said. “We left a lot of runners in scoring position, but overall Karleigh swung the bat really well, and Carson and Garcia were consistent for us.”
Linfield finds out May 6 who and where it will play to start off play in the regionals.
“We’re going to take the next three days off and let them refresh, then get back to practice,” Vaughan said. “The weird thing is, we have such a long break because everything gets done early.
“We’re just going to get back to basics with individual things in the two weeks we have between now and the regionals.”