Makayla Lefever’s softball career is ending a year sooner than it might have, but it is not over yet.
The Whitworth University junior pitcher will forego her final year of athletic eligibility because she has been accepted into the Washington State University nursing program.
But first, the Woodland High School graduate will be in the circle as the Pirates play host to the NCAA Division III Spokane Regional tournament Friday through Sunday at Jane Marks Field.
Lefever is accustomed to focusing on the present.
Describing herself as “a really focused person,” Lefever said she is locked in to the game situation and what she has to do with the batter she is facing.
“I don’t usually hear the outside noise,” she said. “Everybody makes fun of me because they say I have such a straight face, but it’s just how I play the game. I’m really detailed, but usually I’m really relaxed when I’m out there. I have a relaxed style, but I think it works for me. Stay calm, but be focused and just completely into the game.”
After a high school career that included a state championship and honors as Class 2A Greater St. Helens League Player of the Year as a sophomore and junior then Trico League Player of the Year as a senior when the Beavers went to Class 1A, Lefever had a bit of an adjustment as a Whitworth freshman. She was 4-4 in 17 appearances, with a 3.25 earned run average. Lefever said her summer ball experience was helpful playing against opponents including NCAA Division I athletes.
“It was definitely a transition in the first year my freshman year because it’s totally new girls who I’m pitching to and I don’t really know how they swing or anything,” she said. “I think my freshman year was a learning experience, and then my sophomore year and my junior year right now, I’ve definitely stepped it up and figured out what I need to do to help my team out and win.”
Lefever stepped up to First Team All-Northwest Conference honors in each of her last two seasons. She was Third Team All-Region as a sophomore, honors not yet announced for this season.
She was 17-5 with a 1.49 ERA as junior, walking only 18 batters in 145.1 innings, with 17 complete games and 17 shutouts. She is 19-4 so far this season with a 1.98 ERA, issuing 25 walks in 148.1 innings, with 17 complete games and four shutouts.
Lefever, a right-handed pitcher who does not bat, has a repertoire of five pitches — fastball, screwball, curveball, changeup and a high screwball similar to a riseball. The curveball and high screwball tend to induce swings, she said, but she is not necessarily trying to punch out opposing batters.
“I’m a popup pitcher,” she said. “I’m not a strikeout pitcher at all, so I usually just focus on getting pop flies or ground balls. I definitely rely a lot on my defense to help me out.”
Wait for bid news
Whitworth has claimed back-to-back NWC regular season championships, last year winning the first conference title in program history by breaking Linfield’s 11-year stranglehold on the crown.
Postseason success has remained elusive, however, as the Wildcats claimed conference tournament titles and the NWC’s automatic NCAA bid both times. Last year’s Pirates were not extended an at-large bid to NCAA-III regionals, but the nine-day wait after the NWC tournament for word from the NCAA resulted this year in good news.
“It was definitely a stressful time, because we didn’t know,” Lefever said. “We were practicing on our own, just in case we did get it. Finding out on Monday that we got it was just awesome. It’s the second time in school history that we’ve ever had a bid to regionals. We’re working really hard.”
Whitworth is not only in regionals, but a regional host — and two of the three others coming to Spokane are very familiar foes.
The Pirates (29-13) face Linfield (29-13) in the first round Friday, while George Fox (30-14) faces Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (34-8-1) of California — the only non-NWC team in the field and the No. 1 seed but not the host. One team will emerge from the double-elimination regional to claim one of 16 berths in best-of-three NCAA-III Super Regionals.
Whitworth split four games each with Linfield and George Fox during the regular season, losing to both in the NWC tournament.
Two other players with regional ties will be at the regional: George Fox sophomore pitcher Madison Sorensen — a teammate of Lefever’s at Woodland — and Linfield junior designated player Erin Tauscher, a Camas High School graduate.
Lefever said the Pirates’ schedule this season has prepared them for the postseason. In addition to the rugged conference slate, Whitworth went 5-2 on a Florida trip that included two neutral-site victories over three-time defending NCAA-III national champion Tufts.
Hosting the tournament is a benefit, Lefever said, particularly with finals coming up at Whitworth next week — but by no stretch of the imagination will that make it easy. The Pirates can help themselves, she said, by not starting slowly.
“As a team, I think we need to go in strong and very focused,” she said. “We definitely need to get our bats going as soon as possible so that we can score early so we’re not waiting until the seventh inning to score and it’s not as stressful. Just keeping our defense really strong is going to help, too.”
Nursing a dream
There will be no senior season for Lefever.
Deciding to direct her interest in health care fields to nursing has her looking ahead to her future as her softball career nears its end. Of course, until Monday, she was in the limbo of not knowing if she was already finished playing.
Under a consortium agreement, students completing the two-year nursing program after beginning their studies at Whitworth or Eastern Washington earn dual diplomas from both WSU and their initial school.
“It was definitely hard at the end of the conference tournament, because we didn’t know if we were going to get a bid or not,” she said. “Now it’s nice because I’m not completely finished and I get to keep playing more. I’ve been playing softball for as long as I can remember, so it’s definitely going to be weird without it. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Nursing will be a new chapter and experience in my life.”