Forget the record, Southern Oregon University softball coach Kim Fritts insists that the Raiders are loaded in the talent department.
ASHLAND — Forget the record, Southern Oregon University softball coach Kim Fritts insists that the Raiders are loaded in the talent department.
Experience — that's another story. And Fritts admits that it could take a while for the Raiders, who endured a monthlong hiatus in the preseason thanks to a succession of rainouts, show more than short bursts of their true potential.
"We kind of have to live with it," she said after Wednesday's practice, "and we're going to have to use these first couple weeks of conference to fine-tune some things and get to know each other. We're just going to keep doing our best and realistically, if we can get our offense going we're going to be OK."
Southern Oregon opens its 28-game — that's 14 doubleheaders — Cascade Conference slate today at home against Northwest Christian, with the first pitch of the opener scheduled to be thrown at 2 p.m. at University Field. If the league's coaches were accurate in their predictions, it should be a competitive opener — SOU was picked to finish fifth in the eight-team conference, and Northwest Christian sixth.
The Raiders' abbreviated preseason — they played only eight of a scheduled 17 games, going 1-7 — has left some question marks that SOU will now be forced to address during league play. The big one concerns its batting lineup.
The Raiders have struggled mightily at the plate thus far and enter today's games ranked seventh in the conference in team batting average (.206) and runs (11). Fritts says SOU's herky-jerky schedule is partly to blame, along with its inexperience. In its most recent game, March 4 against Simpson, Southern Oregon started four underclassmen, including a pair of freshmen, Tyler Burke and Kassie Smith. Burke batted leadoff and Smith third.
Sophomore left fielder Sulie Augustine leads the Raiders at the plate and is tied for seventh in the conference with a .400 batting average, and senior catcher Julia Willison is batting .368 with three doubles. But after Willison there's a huge drop-off at the plate for the Raiders, who have just 11 extra-base hits as a team (all doubles).
Augustine, a 5-foot-8 right-hander from Central Catholic, could help lift the Raiders out of their doldrums if she continues to excel out of the five hole.
"Last year (Augustine) had some growing pains and she got some things figured out so this year she's definitely going to be a force for us," Fritts said. "She's a tremendous hitter."
In the circle, the Raiders are a little more settled.
Sophomore right-hander Sydney White is the closest thing they have to a staff ace. The 5-foot-6 change-up specialist out of Clovis, Calif., leads the Raiders with 232/3 innings pitched. She's 1-2 with a 4.92 ERA, 16 strikeouts and eight walks. Those aren't all-star numbers, but White has shown flashes of brilliance, such as her complete-game gem that led SOU to a 6-2 win over top-ranked and defending national champion Concordia-Irvine on Feb. 1. And last season as a freshman, White led the Raiders in innings pitched (154), strikeouts (110), ERA (3.32) and complete games (16).
Other pitchers at Fritts' disposal include senior Karlie Stephens, a 5-10 righty from Eagle Point, redshirt freshman Brianne Craig and junior Cheyenne Bricker. Stephens is 0-1 with an 8.10 ERA in 131/3 innings, Craig is 0-2 with 4.82 ERA in 91/3 innings and Bricker has surrendered 10 runs, nine earned, in two innings.
"I couldn't tell you a top one, two, three, four right now," Fritts said of the pitching staff. "But we have sat down and discussed as a whole that it's going to take all of us to be successful. They are working together as a pitching staff and helping each other out, and they're going to do whatever it takes for us to win."
Southern Oregon's subpar record may be a little deceiving. The Raiders' three preseason opponents — Biola, Concordia and Simpson — have had their way with just about every team they've faced, winning 60 of a combined 69 games. Also, the Raiders had so many games and practices washed out by rain, Fritts says, they practically had to push the restart button. They played Concordia-Irvine on Feb. 1, then didn't play again until March 4 against Simpson, a span of 31 days.
It showed. The Raiders managed only seven hits in two games against Simpson (Simpson swept).
"It was just like starting over, so the girls had their first-game jitters again against Simpson," Fritts said. "And, the teams that we have played are probably all going to be in the (NAIA) top 20."
In other words, league play may come as a bit of a relief for the Raiders.
College of Idaho was picked to win the Cascade Conference, receiving five first-place votes by the coaches and 46 points overall, while Concordia was ranked second and Oregon Tech third.
Corban, SOU's second league opponent, scheduled to be in Ashland Saturday, was ranked fourth by the CCC coaches.
Fritts said her team is hungry for a sweep today against Northwest Christian, which has a staff ERA of 7.89. History is certainly on SOU's side — the Raiders have won 13 straight over the Beacons.
Also, says Fritts, Southern Oregon went the extra mile during the offseason in preparation for this year, and it's only a matter of time before all those hours in the cages and all those bullpen sessions begin to pay off.
"We've played some really tough teams and we've struggled a little bit with the bat, so it would be nice to come out and be successful," she said. "But every team in our conference is going to be strong.
"This team, they're going to accomplish everything that they set their minds to. They've worked hard all year and I feel like with the work and the effort that they put in we can definitely do some really good things. Unfortunately, we just don't have those innings under our belts. But they put their heart and soul into it and worked really hard in the offseason, and I want more than anything for this team to succeed because they deserve it."