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No. 4 SOU set to host NAIA Opening Round

ASHLAND — With each postseason appearance, expectations of the Southern Oregon University softball team grow larger by the Raiders’ own doing. Back in the NAIA Opening Round for the fourth year in a row, there is no longer any mistaking the fact that they’re the team to beat on the road to the World Series.

The Raiders — along with the City of Medford — hosted the Opening Round last year for the first time since the 10-site, 40-team format was adopted in 2013, and the Southern Oregon Bracket returns to U.S. Cellular Community Park today through Wednesday. The four-team, double-elimination tournament will decide who joins a 10-team field at the NAIA World Series on May 24-30 in Springfield, Missouri.

Fourth-ranked SOU (45-7), fresh off a Cascade Conference Tournament title and the cleanest regular season in team history, is the top seed and will open at 1:30 p.m. today with No. 4-seeded Marymount California (34-12), the Cal Pac Conference champion. At No. 11 in the latest Top 25 poll, Hope International (Calif.) (44-12) is the highest-ranked No. 2 seed in the entire tournament and will play the first game at 11 a.m. today against No. 3-seeded Taylor (Ind.) (35-15).

Three games will take place Tuesday, starting at 11 a.m. with the opening-day winners matching up. The championship round — which will be either one or two games — is scheduled for an 11 a.m. first pitch Wednesday.

Seeking their third consecutive trip to the World Series, the Raiders have played like a team on a mission since coming up one win short of a spot in last year’s national championship game in Florida. Excepting back-to-back losses at College of Idaho after their CCC regular-season title had already been clinched, they’ve outscored opponents by an aggregate of 157-40 since the beginning of April.

They’ll bring the top batting average (.369) and on-base percentage (.422) in team history by wide margins to the tournament, with a lineup in which all nine regulars bat .329 or better. It’s been anchored by two newcomers, third baseman Lauren Quirke (.450, 28 extra-base hits, 55 RBIs) and catcher Allie Stines (.428, 31 extra-basehits, 63 runs, 53 RBIs), though sophomore second baseman Hannah Shimek (.366, 51 RBIs) has already established herself as a postseason force: She went 5-for-10 with five RBIs in the CCC Tournament and has batted .492 (29-for-59) in 16 career playoff games.

The key, however, is junior ace Gabby Sandoval, who possesses a 1.07 ERA, conference records for wins (30-3) and shutouts (13), and a defense that has committed half as many errors as its opponents. Sandoval worked all 21 innings of the CCC tournament, allowing three runs, and is 11-1 all-time in postseason play.

After a midseason swoon that included seven losses in 11 games, the Hope International Royals have recovered with eight straight wins heading into the tourney — and just defeated ninth-ranked Vanguard (Calif.) in back-to-back games for the GSAC tourney title. They’re in the Opening Round for the second time after going two-and-out last year in a bracket that included Columbia (Mo.), the eventual national runner-up.

Making them especially dangerous is a deep pitching staff that combined for a 2.29 ERA and features four legitimate options: Taylor Pierce (15-5, 1.92), Jamie Ponce (20-4, 2.75), Olivia Candelas (6-2, 2.01) and Anessa Cepeda (3-1, 2.42). Cepeda is also a first baseman and sits in the middle of a lineup that collectively batted .347, going for 45 RBIs and a .412 average herself. Leadoff hitter Melanie Okazaki (.446, 29 extra-base hits) is statistically an even tougher out.

The Royals lost two against SOU on a neutral field three months ago, 4-3 and 5-3, though the Raiders took the lead in the sixth innings of both games.

The Taylor Trojans have a 15-loss record that is more indicative of their competition than their talent: In the Crossroads League, they took four losses against currently-unbeaten and second-ranked Marian (Ind.) and three more against No. 13 Indiana Wesleyan.

They earned their spot in the field, however, by knocking off IWU in the conference tournament. It’s their third appearance in the Opening Round, having previously advanced in 2004 and ‘17, and they’re attempting their first run to the World Series. They’ll bring a blossoming ace in sophomore pitcher Jessica Doctor (12-9, 2.39) — an all-conference selection who has issued just 12 walks in 111 1/3 innings — and a solid No. 2 option in Lauren Kanai (12-4 3.38). The lineup is deep too, with five regulars batting between .344 and .366, anchored by oft-slugging center fielder Courtney Moriarty (.366, 12 home runs, 10 doubles, 46 RBIs).

After Cal Pac champion Simpson (Calif.) appeared as the Southern Oregon Bracket No. 4 seed last year, the Marymount Mariners have taken their place after denying the Redhawks a fifth consecutive title. In just its fourth year as an NAIA program, Marymount has already staged a 16-win improvement compared to last season.

They feature the Cal Pac Player of the Year in Johnie Cortez (.404, 8 2B, 28 RBIs), the Pitcher of the Year in DeAndria Lockett (18-2, 1.44) and the Newcomer of the Year in Taylor Roberts (.373, 8 doubles) — along with a fortified power hitter in Madison Loui (12 doubles, 4 homers, 2 triples).

They’ve won 15 of their last 16 coming into the tournament, with all but two of those victories decided by at least six runs. They matched up with SOU for the first time last year in an 8-0 loss.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune SOU’s Gabby Sandoval high-fives teammate Mackenzie Evangelisti after closing out the side in the 6th inning.