Emilee Lepp leads the nation in home runs for the 2011 season. Not just her team. Not just her league. Not just her division. Lepp, a junior at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore., has set a new NCAA Division III single-season record with 27 home runs (through games of April 24). That total is nine more than the Division II leaders Chrissy Stalf of Humboldt State and Kashilia Young of West Virginia Wesleyan with 18 each and seven more than the trio of Division I student-athletes that stand atop the list with 20 apiece: Gabriele Bridges of Louisiana-Lafayette, Megan Bush of Florida and Hoku Nohara of New Mexico State.
In fact, Linfield boasts the top three home run hitters in all of Division III, with Lepp followed by teammates Staci Doucette (18) and Emily Keagbine (16), who rank second and third for home runs this season.
“It’s kind of unbelievable at times,” said Linfield head coach Jackson Vaughan. “Just the amount of home runs that have been hit. We’ve just had the right people at the right time. We’re doing a few things right, but this is just the talent that we have right now with Emilee and Staci and our other Emily. When you have that much firepower with three kids, it adds up fast.”
“We have girls all through our lineup that are hitting home runs,” said Lepp. “Our leadoff, who had never hit a home run, hit one this year so that was pretty exciting. Our nine hitter has three home runs this year and she didn’t have any last year. Our whole team can hit the ball pretty hard.”
Linfield is collecting home runs at a record pace, individually and as a team. Last season, in 49 games played, the Wildcats had 78 home runs as a team with Doucette responsible for a school-record 20.
With 43 games in the books and at least two games of NCAA tournament play a certainty after the Wildcats clinched the Northwest Conference Softball Championship last weekend, Linfield has recorded 87 home runs as a team with 27 from Lepp.
“Jackson really works with us a lot on our hitting,” said Lepp. “We go over a lot of film. We’ve always done that, but I think that being an upperclassman and being used to his teaching style and being able to take criticism to help with our techniques has really helped.”
“Emilee has been hitting home runs consistently all year,” said Vaughan, “especially when we were in California for spring break. We tweaked a few things in her swing right before we left and she’s been on fire ever since.”
Lepp recorded 11 home runs in 12 games on that spring break trip. In the first five of those six doubleheaders, Lepp did not have a home run in the opening game, but had at least one in the nightcap. The sixth doubleheader, against Whittier, saw Lepp post two home runs in each game.
The record home run numbers from Lepp have actually taken some pressure off of Doucette, whose return for her junior season was in doubt.
“Staci toyed with the idea of not playing this year,” said Vaughan. “She had off-season shoulder surgery and ankle surgery and we weren’t quite sure if she was going to be able to play much or at all this year. She didn’t really start practicing until about a week and a half before our first game, but in the first game she played, she just jumped in and started hitting like Staci always hits. She has welcomed having Emilee around because it makes it a little harder for teams to focus just on her. She’s been an All-American twice and is a two-time Player of the Year in our conference, so from an individual standpoint, there aren’t a ton of things she hasn’t accomplished already.”
None of Vaughan’s current players were at Linfield when he guided the Wildcats to the 2007 NCAA Championship, but most of this year’s team played last year when Linfield fell to East Texas Baptist, losing 5-4 on a walk-off single in the championship game.
“We have pretty much everybody back from last year’s team that finished second,” said Vaughan, “so that led to the preseason ranking. We just lost our starting right fielder and a couple of backup players, so we had most of our primary kids back. The girls set out with the goals of getting back to where we were last year, so they worked really hard all offseason and preseason and for the most part have played well all year.”
Linfield has held the top spot in the NFCA Division III Top 25 Poll since preseason rankings were released in February. The Wildcats will enter postseason play on a 36-game winning streak with a 41-2 record when NCAA regional assignments are announced on Sunday, May 8. Linfield will spend their entire postseason at least two time zones away from home, as the pre-announced NCAA regional sites are located in Michigan, Iowa, New York, Rhode Island, Maryland, Texas and Wisconsin.
Lepp is a critical part of the Wildcats success this season not just because of her hitting, but as the team’s starting catcher. Lepp believes that both her spot in the lineup and her defensive position have helped in her success this season.
“Being a catcher helps a lot,” said Lepp, “because I catch our pitchers in practice and I see the spin of the ball and the movement. I think that helps as a hitter, to be able to read what pitch is coming.
“I hit in front of Staci Doucette. She’s extremely talented so it’s fortunate for me because I get overlooked a lot. Pitchers give me a better pitch selection and Staci gets walked a lot.”
Vaughan does not worry about having to rely on the longball to score runs in tight games down the stretch.
“We’re not trying to hit home runs,” said Vaughan. “We’re just trying to hit the ball and we’re fortunate to have kids that are strong enough that a lot of their hits just go out. We work on the short game and know we’re going to have to execute when we face a great pitcher, because a great pitcher is the great equalizer. There will be games where we have to fight it out and scrap for a few runs. That happened to us in the playoffs last year and it has happened to us a few times this year.”
That stretch run, which will begin on May 12 or 13, is the focus for Vaughan and his Wildcats.
“We don’t feel much pressure because we didn’t win last year. We came up short,” said Lepp. “We just have a fire in our belly right now. We want to get back. I’ve never been on another team that has worked harder than this team does. We definitely put in the time and the effort. It’s a close-knit team and we’re so excited to have a chance at the national run.”