Linfield softball prepares to take advantage of 2021 season

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Crowded, mask-less dugouts are a thing of the past.

JJ Anderson, Staff Writer

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“We learned quickly from last year that we cannot take anything for granted. We plan to take full advantage of the year we have been given,” fifth year senior outfielder Kelsey Wilkinson said about Linfield University softball team’s outlook for 2021.

Wilkinson, one of two fifth year seniors who are returning to the diamond this year for the ‘Cats, is willing to do whatever it takes to return to competition. “I’d be willing to wear 50 masks if it meant we could have our season,” she said.

On Wednesday, the Wildcats were voted the No. 6 team in the country by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association poll. 

“It adds some sort of pressure to our season because we have to prove that we are one of the best teams. Teams are going to see that and want to beat us. We are taking pride in the fact that we are ranked No. 6, however, as a team we are still working hard at getting better every day,” senior pitcher Maddy Podner said.

Following a 39-8-1 record in 2019, which ended in a disappointing loss to eventual national champion Texas Lutheran University in the NCAA Super Regional tournament in McMinnville, the ‘Cats were poised for a successful 2020 season. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team started the 2020 season out 12-2, starting with a nine-game win streak. 

“It was definitely hard to have our season spontaneously cut short last year because of COVID, but it forced us to really not take anything for granted and appreciate every moment that we get to play softball,” Podner said.

Knowing how quickly things can be taken from away, taking softball for granted is not an option for the players. “We really do need to be appreciative of every moment because we never know what is going to happen in these unprecedented times,” Podner said.

The leadup to this season was unfamiliar to the athletes. In a normal year, they utilize the off-season to train and improve their skills. Instead, facilities have been vacant as COVID-19 safety guidelines limit the use of indoor equipment.

“We have definitely been through difficulties this year,” said Wilkinson. “For us, the weight room is an extremely vital part of our pre-season January practices, but we have gotten very creative and found ways to try to gain and maintain what strength we do have.” 

However, the team is finding ways to make the best out of the situation.

“We have been adapting to the best of our ability, doing strength circuits and sandbag workouts to make sure we are still lifting,” Podner said. “Things are different this year but we are still working hard and preparing to have a great season.” 

Despite being located less than an hour away from in-state NCAA Division 1 programs, most small-college athletics have been sidelined for almost a year.

“Bigger schools have more funding, they have more testing, more resources, and a big part of why those athletes came to that school is to play softball,” Wilkinson said. “That’s not the case for our team. We are here to receive an extremely good education and build close relationships through Linfield with the benefit to play softball while we are here.”

Due to travel restrictions, the ‘Cats will be playing local teams in the preseason, as opposed to their typical schedule playing in California or Arizona. “We are playing teams that we have never played before so I am excited for this year’s schedule,” Podner said.

Del Smith Stadium, home of the Wildcats, will look a little different since the last time the ‘Cats took to the field. The stadium was gifted with new backstop posts, netting, and branded backstop padding by the TopCat Club. 

The TopCat Club is an organization that supports Linfield Athletics with funding to help improve the athletic experience for athletes.

In September, the perimeter fence also received a facelift. Brand new purple and white mesh signs, donning the names and pictures of the program’s 19 All-Americans and other various honors, now line the field. Similarly, the bullpen fence bears the likeness of past NWC Pitcher of the Year award winners.

I think it’s awesome. We have had so much tradition over the last 20 years,” head coach Jackson Vaughan said of the renovations in an interview with Linfield Athletics. “We wanted to paint a picture for people who haven’t been around the program as much, to show how much tradition there is, how many great players we’ve been able to have and how many great teams we’ve been able to have.”

Regardless of how many games they play, who against, or where at, the ‘Cats are just relieved to be playing again. “Coach Vaughan always reminds us when we face another roadblock is, ‘You can either cry, get mad, or laugh about it, but in the end that’s all we can do about it,’” Wilkinson said. “Yes, things are hard and ever changing, but that’s how it is everywhere right now. Choosing to stay positive and optimistic may be one of the most important and beneficial things our team has done this year.” 

The Wildcats will play their first game in 351 days on Feb. 21 at Del Smith Stadium vs. Warner Pacific University in a double header, starting at noon.