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SOU softball looks to keep good times going when it opens the CCC tourney in Ashland

ASHLAND — To get back to the NAIA World Series, the Southern Oregon University softball team will have no problem saying it can do so from the comfort of home.

That’s what happens when your longest “road trip” is going all of 15 minutes north on Interstate 5.

The first step in that possible trip back to Florida starts right in the Raiders’ own backyard.

University Field is the place where No. 8-nationally ranked Southern Oregon will look to claim its second consecutive Cascade Conference Tournament title this weekend. The Raiders (41-12 overall), who earned the tournament’s No. 1 seed by virtue of winning the CCC’s regular-season title, will face the winner of today’s opener between No. 4 Eastern Oregon (23-20) and the University of British Columbia (17-21), the No. 5 seed, at 2 p.m. this afternoon.

“This is what we prepare all year for,” SOU head coach Jessica Pistole said. “We’re in a good place and we’re continuing to prepare to push to get a little bit better every week. This is why we train, why we Raider Ruck and do all our lifting and everything. This is where it gets fun.”

Combined with last week’s announcement that Southern Oregon will host one of the 10 NAIA Opening Round regionals at U.S. Cellular Community Park in Medford, the Raiders only have to do a fraction of the traveling that they did this time last season as they eventually advanced to the NAIA World Series for the first time in school history.

Less than two weeks ago, it was only a mere possibility that the Raiders would get a precious few number of extra home games with the conference title race still to be decided.

Now, they won’t even have to make any kind of flight plans and head to the airport until a possible return trip to Florida is booked.

“It’s totally awesome and I think that, obviously, there’s no better place than home. We love it,” SOU senior shortstop Kelsey Randall said. “I think we definitely have things to work on still, so we’re just focusing on the little things and trying to improve each week. We’re definitely ready.”

The Raiders closed the season by winning 12 of their final 14 conference games, including the last three on the road in La Grande last weekend to secure the outright CCC regular-season title.

Of those 12 wins, nearly half of them were one-run ballgames.

“Like (senior catcher) Harlee (Donovan) always says, we need to keep our highs not too high and our lows not too low. Just having that steady mindset and knowing that we can do it,” SOU freshman first baseman Tayler Walker said. “Last week when we found out we won conference, it wasn’t really a celebration but more like a check off our list because we’re looking so far ahead of what we can do and what we’re going to do.”

SOU sophomore right-hander Gabby Sandoval will get the start in the circle in the Raiders’ tournament opener this afternoon.

Sandoval has only gotten better as the season has gone on. And her month of April was proof of that.

Sandoval — who became SOU’s first 20-game winner since 2009 in last weekend’s series against EOU — has thrown complete games in each of her last eight starts. Over that 56-inning span, Sandoval has allowed all of six earned runs and has a minuscule 0.75 ERA.

“She’s done a ton of work over the course of the year just in terms of just getting her mind in the right place and just tightening up things that come up, but really staying within herself and doing what she does,” Pistole said of Sandoval, who finished the regular season with a 1.83 ERA. “She’s definitely taken it to another level these last several weeks and with each game I do feel like she’s getting stronger. She’s out there for us and that’s what you want at this point.”

As much as familiarity may be a theme in the conference tournament — SOU has played each of the other top four seeds within the past five weeks — the Raiders aren’t changing their approach even though the stakes have been raised.

That’s how it was last week with the regular-season title on the line.

And, even though their spot in the NAIA Opening Round is secured, that’s how it’s going to be this weekend as well.

Translation: SOU knows that if it takes care of its own business, then good things are probably going to happen as a result.

“One game at a time,” Walker said. “We’re only focusing on (this afternoon’s) game and whatever team we’re playing, we’ll be ready. We’re just continuing to work hard and focusing on one game a time.”

It’s something that has led the Raiders to 41 wins already this season, so there’s no reason to change now.

“We’re one-game-at-a-time, so that’s where it was like we knew we needed to take care of business the last couple of weekends,” Pistole said. “We know the goals that we’ve set out to reach. I feel like we know we’re not there yet and we’re not as good as we can be, but we’re going to keep pushing.”

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