Keagbine and Velaski finish on top

The two Beaverton-area graduates lead Linfield to the national crown
by: courtesy Linfield Athletics TITLE TIME — Valley Catholic grad Emily Keagbine (second from left) and Beaverton grad Claire Velaski (second from right) and their Linfield teammates hoist the Division III national championship trophy.

SALEM, Va. - The stage was set a year earlier, and for Linfield seniors Emily Keagbine and Claire Velaski, there was no other possible outcome.

In this case, the milieu was softball, and the result that Keagbine (a Valley Catholic graduate) and Velaski (a Beaverton grad) wanted so badly was nothing less than total victory.

And that is exactly what Velaski, Keagbine and the rest of the Linfield softball team got, closing out their record-breaking 2011 season by beating Christopher Newport 6-2 back on May 24 to seal up their victory in the NCAA Division III national title tilt at Moyer Sports Complex.

For Velaski, who recently graduated with a degree in exercise science, and Keagbine, who graduated with a double major in math and finance, the championship was the perfect exclamation point to their college softball careers.

'I could not have asked for a better way to end my Linfield career and a great way to end my softball career,' said Velaski, Linfield's No. 1 pitcher and an all-tournament selection after going 6-1 in the postseason (which also included the team's four wins in the regionals at Pella, Iowa) with a 0.67 ERA and 38 strikeouts. 'I am so lucky to have been part of such a great team.'

'It was pretty crazy,' added Keagbine, the team's starting shortstop and an all-tourney pick herself after hitting .286 at Salem with five runs scored and one RBI. 'It was pretty amazing to be part of it.'

Not that the Wildcats were surprised to win the tournament. Indeed, they expected it, even demanded it after coming so agonizingly close a year earlier. In the 2010 National Tournament, the Wildcats battled all the way to the championship game before falling 5-4 to East Texas Baptist - a loss that haunted and energized the team throughout its 2011 season.

'We definitely (thought about it). Everyone talked about it all the time,' Keagbine said of her team's near-miss in the 2011 title contest. 'No one wanted to feel that way again.'

'When we lost (in 2010), everyone was so disappointed. Everyone was devastated,' Velaski agreed. 'It left a bad taste in everyone's mouth.'

Thus energized, the Wildcats worked harder than ever to prepare for the 2011 season, and when it arrived, Linfield was ready like nobody's business.

Following is a list of the Wildcats' other highlights from 2011, highlights that Velaski and Keagbine played huge roles in creating:

n The team went 51-3 overall in 2011 to set a new Division III record for victories.

n Linfield put together a 35-game winning streak in 2011, a streak that began with its 8-7 victory at Claremont on March 18 and didn't end until Texas-Tyler upended the Cats 4-0 on May 21 in a winner's bracket game in the NCAA Division III tournament.

n The Wildcats hammered an NCAA record 103 homers in 2011.

n Linfield posted a 50-9 scoring edge while going 6-1 in the Division III tournament.

As to that 35-game winning streak, a streak that spanned 63 days, the Wildcats were far more focused on playing well each day than on counting off its growing list of victims.

'I wasn't even really aware of it,' Keagbine said. 'We were just playing and feeling good. No one was like 'We have to keep winning to keep our streak going.''

'In the streak, we had some games where we played well and some where we didn't play our best,' Velaski added. 'I think there were a lot of people who didn't even realize we'd won that many in a row.'

That said, it had to be a shock to the system when Texas-Tyler ended the streak in the Division III tournament and put the Wildcats' title hopes on life support, right?

Not so much according to Velaski and Keagbine.

'People were mad,' Velaski said. 'A lot of people were unhappy with their performances - I was unhappy with my performance. We knew we could do better, and we knew we still had a chance to win it all.'

'That was not one of our best days,' Keagbine said. 'First, it was like 'What happened?' Then it was 'OK. It's not over. We can still do this.''

In the same way the team rallied and took strength from the disappointing end to its 2010 season, the Wildcats did the same with their streak-ending loss to the Patriots. And, they also saw the loss as a chance to continue - and even extend - the best year in Linfield history.

The team came back from the loss to Texas-Tyler by beating Eastern Connecticut (9-1 in six innings with Keagbine going 1-for-4), the next day, and then - thanks to a lightning delay in their next contest - winning three consecutive games on May 23.

First, the Wildcats avenged the loss to Texas-Tyler with a 7-1 victory that included a 1-for-3 effort by Keagbine with one run scored.

Next, they knocked off Christopher Newport 6-0 with Velaski throwing two scoreless innings and Keagbine going 1-for-4 and scoring twice.

Finally, Linfield routed SUNY Cortland 12-1 to win a place in the tournament championship, with Keagbine going 2-for-4 and scoring once, and Velaski throwing three innings to pick up the win.

'I don't think we felt pressure,' Keagbine said of the three-game day. 'We knew if we got on and got rolling the first game, we'd be OK.'

'Looking back, it was kind of fun to go through the loser's bracket,' Velaski said. 'It made us loosen up and just play.'

That said, the top-ranked Wildcats got tested big-time by Christopher Newport in the May 24 finale. Linfield was unable to take full advantage of four CNU errors through the game's first five innings, managed just two runs and four hits off of Captains starter Krista Townsend and saw the game tied at 2-2 when a rain and lightning delay stopped the game after the fifth inning.

After nearly an hour's delay, Linfield delivered a little lightning of its own, when Karleigh Prestianni smacked her 14th home run of the season to ignite a four-run Wildcat sixth that sealed the victory.

'Prestianni's home run - that kind of opened it up and we started to hit the ball,' Velaski said. 'It took some pressure off us and we just relaxed.'

'I'll always remember the lightning delay and Karleigh hitting the homer right afterward,' Keagbine said. 'We were a little nervous, a little tense, but that was so great. It took a big weight off our shoulders.'

And added a little weight too - the weight of the team's second national championship trophy in the past five seasons.

For the season, Keagbine and teammate Alex Hartmann shared a new career record for most games started with 184, and Keagbine earned first-team All-American recognition from the NFCA. Velaski, meanwhile, set single-season standards for appearances (35) and wins (25), and was appointed a third team All-American.