By Logan Brandon • Sports Editor • 

What next? Linfield softball players walk different paths

Marcus Larson/News-Register file photo##
Linfield third baseman Chelsea Horita (55) celebrates with starting pitcher Shelby Saylors(26) during last year’s DIII Super Regional. Horita and her fellow seniors watched their season end abruptly due to coronavirus concerns, but the eight veterans have exciting plans for the future.
Marcus Larson/News-Register file photo## Linfield third baseman Chelsea Horita (55) celebrates with starting pitcher Shelby Saylors(26) during last year’s DIII Super Regional. Horita and her fellow seniors watched their season end abruptly due to coronavirus concerns, but the eight veterans have exciting plans for the future.
Marcus Larson/News-Register file photo##
Linfield outfielder Kelsey Wilkinson catches a line drive during last season’s DIII Super Regional. Wilkinson, along with Kamryn Apling, will both use the NCAA’s offer of extra eligibility to return next year.
Marcus Larson/News-Register file photo## Linfield outfielder Kelsey Wilkinson catches a line drive during last season’s DIII Super Regional. Wilkinson, along with Kamryn Apling, will both use the NCAA’s offer of extra eligibility to return next year.

“I will come back.”

Kelsey Wilkinson isn’t ready to conclude her Linfield softball career. The senior outfielder played parts of four seasons for the Wildcats, including 14 games in the coronavirus-shortened 2020 campaign.

With the NCAA cancelling all spring sports and championships, Wilkinson and her fellow senior student-athletes – Chelsea Horita, Jocie Newton, Kory Oleson, Brooke Snyder, Kamryn Apling, Makenna Clizer and Clarissa Wolfe – faced a difficult decision.

Would they cash in the NCAA’s offering of extra eligibility? Or graduate and begin professional careers?

Members of a perennial national contender, the veteran Wildcats realized the current season’s abrupt end eliminated any opportunity for a return to the Women’s College World Series.

As Linfield head softball coach Jackson Vaughn said, “We lost an opportunity to contend and a chance to win another league championship.”

Wilkinson felt the Wildcats were hitting their stride during the NFCA Leadoff Classic in Tucson. Though Linfield suffered its only two losses of the year in Arizona, the veteran outfielder said the team’s chemistry was never higher.

“Early in the season, we were still figuring out our roles, especially in our pitching,” she explained. “By Arizona, we were super comfortable with one another. I definitely think we were figuring it out.”

Wilkinson said the team’s veteran players were especially vocal about welcoming the freshmen athletes to the Catball family this year, in which Vaughn agreed, saying, “The seniors were phenomenal teammates. There was no divide among this group – they brought our freshmen into the program. They displayed tremendous leadership.”

Linfield’s final game of 2020 featured a 4-3 win over St. Benedict, in which Wilkinson recorded three hits and swiped four bags. She finished the season with a monstrous .413 batting average and a perfect nine-for-nine on stolen base attempts.

Wilkinson’s impact on the diamond was never greater in the shortened season; she observed, “I approached each game with the right mentality to help our team win.”

Unfortunately, as news arrived announcing the suspension of spring athletics, Wilkinson, Horita and their teammates couldn’t help feeling disappointed.

“It was a really bad feeling,” said Horita. “At practice, when our coaches told us the season was cancelled, it just felt surreal. We all looked at each other and the waterworks started.”

“We heard about a couple schools closing, so it was almost expected. Still, it was pretty hard when Jackson told us. The whole team was in tears,” added Wilkinson.

While Wilkinson decided to return to Linfield next spring, Horita chose a different path.

The opportunity to play another season of softball proved appealing for Horita, but ultimately she set her sights on beginning her military career with the Air National Guard in her native Hawaii.

“There is a new space and missile unit in Kauai, which fits perfectly with my computer science background. I’d like to get my officer’s commission soon,” noted Horita.

Though eager to begin an exciting career in the armed forces, the senior third baseman said she’ll always miss the bond of her teammates.

Reflecting on her career, Horita mentioned playing softball with her best friends as one of her greatest experiences at Linfield. She added, “I’m going to miss the culture itself. In Catball culture everyone works hard for one goal. We had a team-first mentality.”

Moving on after playing a role in such a fantastic start (12 wins, two losses) also stung Horita, who noted, “For the seniors, we thought this would be the year we get to the College World Series. We came so close the past two years, and we had the best chemistry I’ve experience in my four years.”

Early in her decisionmaking process, Horita seriously considered returning to Linfield for a fifth year. She discussed her plans with coaches, friends and family, while exploring the financial impact of another year at the college.

“I kept talking about coming back and making plans, but it seemed like every time I did, something came up to disrupt those plans,” she said.

Ultimately, she decided to focus on obtaining a job.

Thankfully, regular team meetings over Zoom have helped Horita maintain contact with her teammates. Living in Hawaii, Horita admitted the difficulty in being so far away from her friends.

Horita offered advice to next year’s Catball players, saying, “Keep playing your hearts out. Don’t take anything for granted, because circumstances can always change.”

Linfield softball’s final team practice occurred Thursday, March 12. Coach Vaughn broke the dismal news to his players and assistants: the season was over.

“It’s was obviously hard – there’s no other way of saying it. The players were robbed of most of their season,” he said.

In the emotional moment, Vaughn decided to make the final team work out a “players’ choice practice.”

The idea was to give the Wildcats an opportunity to experience the thrill and fun of their sport one last time before the school year closed. Players tried out new positions – like Horita showing off her pitching prowess – competed in games of ninja and softball golf and generally enjoyed themselves between moments of tears.

“We probably practiced for three hours,” Vaughn remembered about the unorthodox workout.

After the practice, players went their separate ways back home or to their on-campus living facilities. Wilkinson, who lives in McMinnville, will join Kamryn Apling as the only two senior athletes returning to Linfield.

She said her future plans include a law enforcement career, either as a police detective or criminal profiler. “I get made fun of for watching shows like Law and Order,” she noted with a laugh.

Asked for a final thought on the shortened season, Wilkinson said, “My class of seniors stuck together.”

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