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Linfield prevails in clash of titans

SOFTBALL: Nationally ranked Wildcats clip Pacific twice on Sunday in a matchup between two of the hottest Division III softball teams in the country
by: Zack Palmer, Pacific’s Caitlin Mastenbroek (foreground) walks off the field as Linfield celebrates a 1-0 victory over the Boxers on Sunday.

MCMINNVILLE - Pacific had a chance to make a statement Sunday against No. 4 Linfield, but it was the Wildcats who put the rest of the Northwest Conference on notice, winning twice to all but lock up their fifth consecutive conference championship.

Pacific (27-5, 16-4) came into the weekend trailing Linfield (32-2, 21-1) by just one game in the NWC standings and could have earned some much-deserved respect with a win (or two) against the reigning NCAA Division III national champions. Instead, the Boxers swallowed two tough losses and will play out the remainder of the season knowing that the conference championship is Linfield's to lose.

'They're definitely in the driver's seat now,' said Pacific head coach Tim Hill. 'We feel good that we've been mentioned in the same breath as [Linfield] in terms of competing for a conference championship and it's nice to say we're still in the chase, but realistically they're in control now.'

Saturday's scheduled games were rained out, so Pacific traveled back to McMinnville on Sunday for a highly anticipated doubleheader between two of the hottest teams in the country - coming into the series, the Boxers and Wildcats had 57 wins and just five losses between them.

Game 1 featured a pitching matchup for the ages, pitting Pacific sophomore Miranda McNealy (15-1, 0.98 ERA) against Linfield junior Brittany Miller (14-1, 0.91 ERA). The duel lived up to its billing, as the two pitchers dominated despite brisk, wintry conditions.

McNealy - who battled through a pregame knee injury - eventually came out on the losing end, giving up a walk-off single to Erica Hancock with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the seventh.

'It's disappointing whenever we lose, regardless of who it's to,' Hill said. 'But to go 0-0 into the seventh inning against basically the best team in the country, you've got to feel pretty good about that.'

Hill raved about the performance of McNealy, who tweaked her knee while warming up and was in obvious pain in the dugout before the game. After being cleared by the medical staff, McNealy went out and tossed 6 1/3 innings of scoreless ball against one of the top offensive teams in the country.

'[Miranda] handled it well. She showed a lot of courage to go out there and pitch even though she was hurting. I gained a lot of respect for her,' Hill said. 'She was feeling some pain but she never let it affect her pitches.'

McNealy did walk a season-high eight batters, but it was Linfield's high-powered offense that came to life and sparked the Wildcats to victory in the seventh.

Stephanie Rice led off the inning with a double to left field, and a walk to Jenny Marshall and a base hit by Meredith Brunette loaded the bases with nobody out. McNealy got cleanup hitter Amanda Attleberger to ground into a force out at the plate, but Hancock laced a shot into the alley in left-center field for the game-winning hit.

'They make you beat them. They're not going to beat themselves,' Hill said of Linfield, which now owns a three-game lead over Pacific and a four-game cushion over Willamette. 'I thought we played well and we played hard. Our approach to the game was excellent. They just beat us.'

Pacific never found its rhythm in Game 2, committing three errors and stranding nine base runners in an 8-3 loss.

Andrea Bansen took the mound for Pacific but fell behind in the first inning when three Pacific fielding errors opened the door for two unearned runs. Linfield would score another run in the second and three more in the third on Alex Hartmann's three-run home run, her second of the season.

Pacific scored single runs in the third, fourth and fifth innings, but never threatened against Linfield starter Kendra Strahm, who improved to 14-0 on the season. The highlight for Pacific came in the fifth when senior Kim Whittaker hit her first career home run, a solo shot to left-center field.

'We're not at their level and we know that,' Hill said. 'But we've closed the gap the last couple years. We're getting closer and closer every year.'

The Boxers will have to put the losses behind them quickly with a busy week coming up. Third-place Willamette (23-7, 17-5) comes calling today for a doubleheader that was rained out in early March, and Pacific has a regularly scheduled four-game series against Whitworth (14-19, 11-10) this weekend.

'Our philosophy all year has been to win the next game,' Hill said. 'It doesn't matter if you're playing Linfield or George Fox. Your focus is on the next game. I think it's important that you're prepared and ready to play each game.'

Tonight's games will start at 5 p.m. at Sherman/Larkins Stadium, weather permitting. The Boxers will host a pair of doubleheaders against Whitworth this weekend, with games starting at noon both days. A make-up date for the rained out Linfield doubleheader has not been set yet.

NOTES: While Pacific still hasn't gotten any votes in the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Top 25 poll, the Boxers did earn a little respect in the most recent NCAA Division III Regional Rankings, which help determine what teams make the postseason. Pacific was ranked sixth in the West Region. A new set of rankings will be released today ... Several school records have fallen already this year. Brooke Fogwell has smashed the single-season record for RBIs (43), Caitlin Mastenbroek broke the record for doubles (14) and Kristen Croxford toppled the mark for runs scored (36).