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Steve Hemphill | NCAA.com | May 24, 2015

The Jumbos in the room

SALEM, Va. -- Why avoid talking about it? Linfield coach Jackson Vaughan didn’t waste time before addressing the elephant in the room.

Or should that be the Jumbos in the room.

“We’re facing the giant -- we know that,” Vaughan said shortly after the Wildcats advanced to semifinals of the NCAA Division III softball championship by shutting out DePauw 8-0 in five innings with the help of a no-hitter from pitcher Montana McNealy.

Vaughan is referring to two-time national champion Tufts, the No. 1-ranked team in Division III softball that earned a day off from tournament play at the James I. Moyer Complex by beating last year’s runner-up, Salisbury in Friday’s second round. That win was the 50th in a row for the Jumbos.

And to add a few more degrees of difficulty to Linfield’s Sunday challenge, it will need to beat its unbeaten opponent twice to move on to the championship best-of-three series, which begins on Monday.

Salisbury, which beat Kean 2-0 earlier on Saturday behind a 1-hitter from pitcher Rachel Johnson, has a similar task ahead. The Sea Gulls need two wins over second-ranked Texas-Tyler, which also had Saturday off.

The good news for both teams was that Saturday’s games were about as low-stress and anyone can hope for at a national tournament. Johnson did not surrender a hit to Kean until the seventh inning, when the Cougars’ Emily Sabo bunted her way to first base. Johnson finished with 11 strikeouts and two walks.

“It was important I guess [to have a short day],” Johnson said. “We definitely want to play two games [on Sunday], but we need to get through the first one. That’s all we’re looking at, and it’s nice that I didn’t have to throw like 200 pitches today.”

The day was even lighter for McNealy. She threw just 57 pitches on the way to her second no-hitter of the season. And when her team’s offense put up four runs in the bottom of the fifth to force the end of the game due to the eight-run rule, she wrapped up the no-no while standing in the dugout.

“I really wasn’t sure if would even count as a no-hitter since it only went five innings,” McNealy said. “But they told me it counts.”

This is far from the first time Linfield has been in a backs-against-the-wall situation. The Wildcats barely even made it into the Northwest Conference tournament back in April -- a tournament they probably had to win just to get into the NCAA tournament. They got three consecutive wins against Willamette in the last weekend of the regular season just to qualify for the tournament.

Linfield went 3-0 to win that tournament, but then lost its NCAA regional opener to St. Thomas, meaning the Wildcats would then have to win four consecutive games if they wanted to move on to super regionals. That’s exactly what they did.

And now they will get their shot at Tufts.

“In some ways our kids can just come out tomorrow and compete like crazy,” Vaughan said. “We know Tufts is a heck of a team, and we know Allison is a phenomenal pitcher. But we just need to go out and compete against her.

“What we harped on to our kids was that one thing we’d get if we beat DePauw was the chance to play Tufts. It’s right now the best team in Division III, so now we just hope we go out there and compete like heck.”

For Salisbury, coach Margie Knight said once again her team won because it was able to manage just enough offense to assure that Johnson’s pitching performance would not get wasted. As she had done after Salisbury’s previous two games, Knight said her team needs to find a way to pick it up offensively if it hopes to beat Texas-Tyler twice on Sunday.

The Sea Gulls, like Linfield, have had some relative experience to what they will face on Sunday.

Knight said her team played in a three-team regional, which led to the Gulls have to play twice on the first day. So there is some recent events the team can look back at if they need a refresher of what it’s like playing two games on the same day.

Of course, Texas-Tyler would like to keep its workload down to just one game – and a win on Sunday afternoon would make that happen. Knight said she knows her team has a challenge facing it.

“[Texas-Tyler is] a great team and I know they’re hungry to be back here,” Knight said. “… Mike [Reed] does a great job there. It’s going to be a great ballgame.

“… And then another great ballgame.”