The wandering Wildcats
Linfield takes long road to Game 1 win at championship
SALEM, Va. -- At Linfield, the last few weeks of May are a busy times for all students.
For the Wildcats, May is downright mind-spinning.
In addition to wrapping up class projects and preparing for finals, the Wildcats have had to work in a few lengthy road trips -- and experience every time zone in the lower 48 states.
“Yeah, it’s been crazy,” Linfield pitcher Montana McNealy said.
They headed back home to Oregon for a couple of day of classes in between those two weekends, and then spent about 50 hours after winning their super regional at Central (Iowa), before embarking on the final destination -- Southwest Virginia (Eastern Time). That’s the home zone of the Division III championships.
The good news for Linfield -- except for one leg of that trip, the Wildcats have been able to travel on a small charter jet. However, that did mean there would be fuel stops along the way, which led to brief layovers in Gillette, Wyoming (Mountain Time), on one trip, and North Platte, Nebraska (back to Central Time) on another.
“It’s a stressful time of year,” Linfield coach Jackson Vaughan said.
The stress level dropped just a big on Thursday afternoon, when Linfield opened play in the tournament with an 8-0 five-inning win against Alfred.
There’s still a lot of softball to be played at the James I. Moyer Complex, but now Linfield (38-13) captured something that has been at a premium -- time.
“In an eight-team tournament, it’s huge because the road back is a long ways,” Vaughan said. “This is such good competition. We were fortunate enough to do it once, but that was tough enough.”
Vaughan was referring to its regional tournament in Decorah, Iowa, where the Wildcats dropped their opening game in the double-elimination tournament to No. 20 St. Thomas (Minn.) 2-1, one of two ranked teams in the four-team tournament.
The Wildcats rebounded, winning four consecutive games, including back-to-back shutout wins against St. Thomas (6-0) in an elimination game, and tournament host and fifth-ranked Luther (8-0) in the first of two games between the clubs.
So what Linfield is facing this time is much better.
“Getting on the board, you know that two teams are going to be gone before you even get back on the field again,” Vaughn said. “That’s just the reality. So anytime you can avoid that first loss, the better off you are.”
With that free time, most of the Wildcats will be playing catch-up with the school part of college life. While many colleges across the country are done with the spring term, Linfield is not among that group. Final exams began on Thursday, and will continue next week.
“How many classes have I missed? … Too many to count!” said designated player Erin Tauscher, who helped buy her team some time with a two-run home run in Linfield’s six-run third inning on Thursday. “I’ll have four finals to take when I get back.”
Tauscher said she compensates for the lost time in the classroom by getting some lecture notes from friends and doing a lot of reading.
“You just have to start reading your textbook page by page, and kind of teach yourself,” she said.
Vaughan said the travel has not been a huge distraction. Linfield’s sports teams are used to making long postseason trips, so what this team is facing is really nothing new. Also where this team has no trouble is motivation, he said, whether the subject is softball or acadmics.
“We try to keep a pretty similar routine,” he said. “We try to keep our workload and work ethic fairly high. But obviously, practice is shortened because you’re on the road quite a bit, and you miss a day here and there with all of the travel.”
One player who isn’t having to cram for exams is McNealy. She will graduate next week, and has spent most of this semester doing her student-teaching. And just in case the Wildcats made it the championships, she started her teaching term a few weeks early.
As a freshman, when Linfield last made it this far (it reached the championship game that year), McNealy was at the bottom of a talented five-player pitching staff, so finding time to study was not a major issue.
She started the opener this year, going four innings, allowing five hits and striking out six. And after she was done, it was time to relax.
“I went through [the finals anxiety] my freshman year,” she said. “But now it’s time to relax.”