The Linfield College softball team is back. Actually, the Wildcats never went anywhere.
Linfield (36-6) opens play Friday in the NCAA Division III regionals, even though many thought the Wildcats were headed for a rebuilding year after three consecutive trips to the national championship game.
Three reasons for Linfield's success this season are sophomores from Clark County: catcher McKenna Spieth and outfielders Grace Middelstadt and Erin Carson.
Middelstadt (Prairie High School) and Carson (Camas) were named the All-NWC first team, while Spieth (Union) was a second-team selection.
"They've all really stepped up big for us as sophomores," coach Jackson Vaughan said. "We had so many question marks. Without those three kids and a couple others, we certainly wouldn't have been the team that we've been."
If anyone thought Linfield would be down with last year's stellar group of seniors -- which included Evergreen graduate Staci Doucette -- gone, the Wildcats are happy to prove them wrong.
"I just expected it to be Catball again," Middelstadt said, using the program's nickname. "We love to be around each other, and we're one big family."
Now that big family is headed to Tyler, Texas.
The No. 3 seed Wildcats play at 2 p.m. PDT Friday against No. 4 seed Redlands (34-10) in a loaded regional also featuring host Texas-Tyler (41-4), Southwestern (34-11), Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (32-11) and East Texas Baptist (34-10).
Linfield won national championships in 2007 and 2011, with runner-up finishes in 2010 and 2012.
That kind of success breeds expectations -- and an understanding of what is at stake and what getting there will take.
"Every day, we are preparing to play at nationals, because that's what we want to do," Middelstadt said. "Regionals is a step along the way. We have to focus on that now because that time has come, but our ultimate goal is to be at nationals. That's what we play for."
The team's starting left fielder as a freshman, Middelstadt moved to center field and led the NWC with 33 steals in 34 attempts. She is batting .327 from the leadoff slot, with 14 RBI.
Vaughan describes her as the catalyst of the team's offense.
"When she gets going, we're pretty tough to beat with her ability to steal bases and put pressure on the defense," the coach said. "She's really turned into a great center fielder, especially in this last month of the season. You can see her confidence growing, and she's got such good speed out there."
A two-time All-Class 3A Greater St. Helens League shortstop, Carson was moved to outfield in February of last season.
She played in 21 games as a freshman and was .333 as a pinch hitter. This year, she led the NWC with a .496 average and has driven in 32 runs. The right fielder was second in the conference with a .529 on-base percentage.
The leap from high school to college softball made her freshman season more of an adjustment than this year's move into the starting lineup.
"Adjusting to that was really hard, but really getting used to the environment of wanting to win everything made a difference in terms of improving my play," she said. "This year, I wasn't intimidated coming in and playing because I had experience. I knew I'd been working hard on my hitting in the offseason. I wasn't necessarily expecting to start all the games, but I knew I had a chance to take a position in the outfield. I worked really hard in the offseason to improve my defense there."
Spieth saw spot duty as a freshman while playing behind two-time All-American catcher Emilee Lepp, appearing in 11 games mostly as a pinch hitter and pinch runner.
This year, she is batting .253 with 14 RBI, and has seven stolen bases.
She played all over the field in high school -- infield, outfield and both ends of the battery. That versatility helped land her a position at Linfield.
Vaughan said he saw potential in Spieth even in limiting time catching last year. And Spieth had some help from Lepp and the pitching staff.
"Emilee worked with me a lot, and that was really cool to get some insight from her, because she's definitely had a lot of experience," Spieth said. "It was definitely a learning year in that sense, kind of relearning the game in the college format instead of the high school or even club ball format, because it's very different."