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CNU's confidence remains high against Linfield

BaseballNCAA Men's Division I Basketball TournamentNational Collegiate Athletic Association

One discouraging afternoon against a daunting opponent wasn't about to erase two weeks' worth of confidence for Christopher Newport's softball team Monday.

"We know we can hit with anybody," said Jessie Atkinson, the Captains' first-team All-American third baseman. "We'll come out rolling (Tuesday)."

That's when unranked CNU faces No. 1 Linfield for the NCAA Division III national championship. That's when the Captains will attempt to avenge Monday's 6-0 loss to Linfield in the double-elimination tournament at Salem's Moyer Softball Complex.

The Wildcats, an astonishing 50-3, won three times Monday to reach the title contest for the second consecutive season. They outscored their opponents 25-2 and broke CNU's seven-game NCAA tournament winning streak.

The Captains (38-11) scored 69 runs in those seven victories. Monday they managed just four hits, all singles, and advanced only two runners past first base.

Credit Linfield pitchers Claire Velaski and Lauren Harvey (15-0), a hard-throwing left-hander and change-of-speed right-hander, respectively. The contrast baffled a CNU squad that ranks 24th nationally among 398 Division III teams in scoring at 7.0 runs per game.

"It did (confuse us)," Atkinson said after the Captains were shut out for the first time since March 4. "It shouldn't have, but it did. We didn't make adjustments early enough. Obviously, we only had four hits."

CNU and Linfield made this Elite Eight tournament last year but that's about the only common thread.

CNU starts four freshmen and was the only unranked team to reach Salem. The Captains freely admit they didn't expect to be here.

Linfield, the 2007 national champ from McMinville, Ore., leans on upperclassmen such as national home-run leader Emilee Lepp (29). The veterans recall all too well the sting of losing the 2010 championship game 5-4 to East Texas Baptist.

"It's always in the back of our minds," Lepp said.

"After last year we know how bad it hurts," Harvey said. "This is what we've wanted."

Those contrasting mindsets make for an irresistible matchup Tuesday — first pitch is scheduled for 10 a.m., due to a grim weather forecast — especially given Monday's result.

The Wildcats roughed up Captains ace Whitney Haller (20-5) for 12 hits, including RBI doubles by Alex Hartmann and Lepp, and a 2-run homer by Karleigh Prestianni. It was precisely the display you'd expect from the national leaders in scoring (9.0 runs per game) and home runs (102).

"They're ready to play right now," Linfield coach Jackson Vaughan said of his players. "They asked if they could play four today."

CNU's Haller threw 133 pitches in a complete-game effort, and given Linfield's late success against her Monday — five runs in the final three innings — don't be surprised if Captains coach Keith Parr turns to Krista Townsend for a few innings Tuesday.

"I think we were a little bit overanxious," Parr said of Monday's performance. "Maybe we'll settle down a little bit (Tuesday) and come out and play a little more relaxed. Smart and more relaxed."

Smart and more relaxed are easier said than done given the stakes and opponent. But the Captains have responded admirably to adversity throughout the season.

They overcame a 1-4 stretch in late March and shrugged off two losses to Shenandoah in the USA South Conference tournament. Most impressive, they've rallied from behind in four of their seven NCAA tournament victories.

"That's irrelevant," Parr said. "All we have to do is be better than them in one game. … We have to have one more great game, that's all."

Great is what will take if CNU hopes to win its first national softball championship.

David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/sports/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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