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With CCC title on the line, SOU softball faces Eastern Oregon in regular-season finale

ASHLAND — As much as all the possible scenarios might have run through Southern Oregon softball players’ respective minds the last few weeks, things are now rather simple when it comes to what it takes to win the Cascade Conference title.

Keep winning, and the prize is yours.

Southern Oregon, now up to No. 8 nationally in the latest NAIA coaches poll, heads to La Grande to face Eastern Oregon for a four-game series starting today at 2 p.m. with destiny fully in its own hands. Even though the Raiders are currently tied with Corban for first place in the conference standings, they hold the tiebreaker over the Warriors.

That means, as long as SOU mirrors Corban this weekend and Oregon Tech — which is one game back — doesn’t make it a three-team logjam at the top, the CCC title belongs to the Raiders.

“I definitely think that we feel really prepared and I think we’re ready,” SOU sophomore third baseman Karlee Coughlin said. “We don’t care who it is. We’re going to act like it’s our rival team every time. We’re prepared and we’re going to do it.”

If they are able to capture the regular-season title this weekend, the Raiders (38-11 overall, 19-5 CCC) will host the conference tournament at University Field next weekend.

Combined with Wednesday’s announcement that SOU was selected as one of the 10 host schools — albeit at U.S. Cellular Community Park in Medford — for the NAIA Opening Round, the Raiders’ path back to the NAIA World Series after making it for the first time last season could very well be one that is done locally.

“That’s where you want to be,” Raiders head coach Jessica Pistole said. “I think the things that you believe dictate your actions, your actions dictate the way things play out and your destiny and how you approach or execute. I’d much rather be in this position than relying on somebody to help us out. We’ve got to flat-out earn it, and that’s how it is. It couldn’t be more fitting for it to come down to the last weekend. We really do have to earn it.”

And don’t kid yourself. They are most certainly aware of what’s at stake.

“It’s huge. Honestly, being home for the conference tournament is huge,” SOU sophomore pitcher Gabby Sandoval said. “I think we’re going to show up this weekend and, whatever happens, we’re going to leave it all out on the field.”

Added Coughlin: “I really think that would be a really good part of the support system because I don’t think the school has ever seen it softball-wise. It would be really great to have a lot of the school come and have them see how we compete with other teams that we don’t usually see.”

SOU enters the weekend with some wind in its sails after sweeping a four-game series against Carroll College in its final home series of the regular season.

That series, according to Pistole, gave her team a good idea of what to expect going forward with both the conference and national tournaments on the horizon.

“I honestly feel like Carroll and Eastern are pretty similar,” Pistole said. “We know every game from here on out could — and very well might — be a one-run ball game. I think it really comes down to us doing the things that we do in here (at practice) when it matters the most. (Eastern Oregon is) playing good softball and they can beat anybody on any given day and lose to anybody on any given day.”

Even though the Mountaineers (22-17, 15-9) average less than 4 1/2 runs a game and has the second-lowest team batting average in the conference (.259), Eastern Oregon ranks third in the CCC and in the top 35 nationally with 26 home runs.

For comparisons sake, SOU has hit just 12 home runs this season — eight of which have come off the bat of senior catcher and No. 3 hitter Harlee Donovan.

“They’re just big swingers,” Pistole said of EOU. “We’ve got to locate the ball, and hopefully we can keep their hitters off-balance and just do our thing on offense.”

The good thing for the Raiders is that both of their starting pitchers, Sandoval and freshman Allie Hancock, are coming off some of their best outings of the season.

Sandoval, who threw a two-hit shutout in last Saturday’s opener that saw SOU sweep the CCC portion of the Carroll series, has allowed two earned runs or fewer in all five of her starts this month. Hancock has been a steady No. 2 starter for the Raiders and hasn’t lost a decision in nearly a month.

“I think they’re finding a groove, and I also feel like our other pitchers in relief are getting stronger, too,” Pistole said. “As a staff, we’re steadily getting into a groove and confident with the way our defense is playing behind us.”

The recipe for success has been there all season, and the chance to check the first major goal of the season off the list is right there for the taking.

“We know what’s on the line, we know first place is on the line,” Sandoval said. “We don’t need to be splitting with teams, we know we can beat teams. We just have to work hard and do it.”

Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.