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COLLEGE SOFTBALL: SOU embarks on title quest

Southern Oregon is making trips to the NAIA Softball World Series part of its postseason routine.

The Raiders’ success, past and present, means they expect to win there, too, but they’re far from alone after every top seed in the opening round advanced to the final site.

The 39th annual tournament will be held for the first time in Springfield, Missouri, at the Killian Sports Complex.

The Raiders (48-7 overall) are the No. 4 overall seed in the 10-team, double-elimination bracket, making their third consecutive appearance and anxious to return after falling one win short of the title series in 2018.

They’ll open at 2 p.m. PDT on Thursday against No. 5 Lindsey Wilson (Ky.) (50-3), a high-powered outfit that ripped through the Mid-South Conference with three of the top-15 individuals on the NAIA’s home-run leaderboard.

As SOU found out last year, life in the elimination bracket is much busier than the alternative.

The Raiders — along with the other top-six seeds — will get a first-round bye and can win the championship with four consecutive wins. An opening-game loss, on the other hand, would require them to win seven in a row for the title.

A win against Lindsey Wilson would set the Raiders up to play at 2 p.m. PDT Saturday against top-seeded defending champion Science & Arts (Okla.), or its first opponent, either No. 8 Georgia Gwinnett or No. 9 Vanguard (Calif.).

A loss to Lindsey Wilson would put the Raiders in an elimination game at 8 a.m. PDT Friday against Georgia Gwinnett or Vanguard.

Over the last 10 years, only one team has come out of the elimination bracket to win the title: top-seeded Oklahoma City in 2016.

Oklahoma City is the most decorated team in the field, having been to 27 of the last 28 World Series with 10 championships. SOU denied the Stars their third straight last year with a 3-2 elimination win.

Oregon Tech is also in Springfield representing the Cascade Conference, seeded No. 10 and back in the field for the first time since 2015. The Owls won the 2011 title.

SOU set team records for wins the previous two seasons, with 46 in 2017 and 51 in 2018. This year’s squad has already clinched the best winning percentage in team history.

Four true freshmen served as lineup regulars for the Raiders at last year’s tournament in first baseman Tayler Walker, second baseman Hannah Shimek and outfielders Olivia Mackey and Avery Morehead-Hutsell.

Back as sophomores, they’ve combined to produce a .359 batting average with 154 runs, 132 RBIs and 45 extra-base hits.

As it stands, SOU’s team average of .366 is the best in Cascade Conference history and its on-base percentage of .420 is easily a team record. The Raiders’ slugging percentage has also sharply increased, from .456 last year to .516 now, despite the losses of SOU home-run record-holder Harlee Donovan and NAIA career triples leader Kelsey Randall.

Catcher Allie Stines, the CCC newcomer of the year, is working on a 12-game hitting streak in which she’s gone 21-for-42 with 15 runs and six extra-base hits. She established a CCC record for doubles in a season with 25 and has thrown out 17 of 30 attempted base stealers.

Stines and SOU’s other top hitting threat, Lauren Quirke (.442, 30 extra-base hits, 58 RBIs) have struck out six times in 431 plate appearances. Both will appear in the World Series for the first time.

At 32-3 with a 1.08 ERA, Gabby Sandoval has more wins than all but one pitcher in the tournament — Valley City State (N.D.)’s Emily Smith is 33-1 with a 1.18 ERA — and with 73 career wins, Sandoval is one away from taking the SOU record for herself.

She’s already set conference records for wins and shutouts (14) in a season and is 13-1 all-time in postseason play. In seven World Series appearances, she’s 3-0 with a 2.51 ERA over 30 1/3 innings.

Shimek led all players at the 2018 World Series with 10 hits, batting .400. She’s hit safely in all 19 of her career playoff starts.

Lindsey Wilson is making its sixth World Series appearance and first since 2015. The Blue Raiders won three consecutive elimination games in the opening round to get here but have put together winning streaks of 21, 13 and 13 throughout the season, going 21-1 in the Mid-South Conference.

Four Blue Raiders have reached double figures in home runs: Makea-Al Kaluau (15), Jadyee Boursaw (14), Samantha Luckett (12) and Callum Pilgrim (11). They ranked second nationally in home runs per game (1.4) and fifth in slugging percentage (.559).

Though they average seven runs per game, the lineup is enduring a mini-slump: They’ve scored four or fewer runs in eight consecutive games after doing so just eight times through their first 45 outings.

SOU's Gabby Sandoval, left, and Allie Stines.