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Raiders crush top seed at World Series

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Southern Oregon provided the first major shake-up of the NAIA Softball World Series on Saturday at the Killian Sports Complex. In their swift 4-0 defeat of the top-seeded defending champion, Science & Arts (Okla.), the fourth-ranked Raiders’ hands remained steady.

SOU (50-7) moved within two wins of a national championship after pitcher Gabby Sandoval navigated through the upset of the Drovers (57-3), who swept through last year’s double-elimination tournament but suddenly face elimination.

Their ace, Emily Cerny, couldn’t match Sandoval’s 15th shutout. She exited with two outs in the fourth inning shortly after Raider shortstop Paige Leeper launched her fourth home run, a solo shot to left-center field that followed RBI doubles from Olivia Mackey and Lauren Quirke.

It was the first time Cerny (27-3) had been replaced in the circle at the World Series since USAO’s run began in 2018. She’d allowed five earned runs in 37 innings and gone 5-0 at the tourney before meeting the Raiders.

“They were ready,” SOU coach Jessica Pistole said of her lineup. “We saw (Cerny) throw yesterday and there wasn’t one person who didn’t believe we were going to come take it. I’m just proud of the way we competed.”

SOU advanced to play at 5 p.m. PDT Monday against No. 3 Oklahoma City, which beat No. 2 Marian 3-0 Saturday. The team that comes out of the winner’s bracket Monday will get two shots at the title Wednesday.

Oklahoma City will undoubtedly have to go through Sandoval, whose record shot to 34-3. Four harmless singles, scattered in separate innings, were all the Drovers had to show against her. Other than that, they only got one ball past the infield.

Sandoval struck out four and walked one in her 100-pitch outing, less than 24 hours after she went the distance in a 4-3 defeat of No. 5 Lindsey Wilson (Ky.). She was at her best in the late innings, inducing three consecutive infield pop-outs in the sixth and striking out USAO’s last two batters swinging in the seventh.

The junior from Anaheim, Calif., has won nine consecutive decisions in national postseason play since the start of last season.

“She’s just so dialed in,” Pistole said. “She’s in a really good place mentally and expects to do what she’s done. She mixed things up really well today and kept them off balance, and they didn’t have many great swings.”

The Raider lineup, on the other hand, squared up Cerny almost immediately. Tayler Walker gave the first hint when she hooked a towering shot with home-run distance just foul in the first. In the second, Tiana Brown led off by shooting a double down the left-field line, and with two outs Mackey split the gap in left-center to make it 1-0.

The Drovers opened the door in the third with a throwing error that enabled leadoff hitter Allie Stines to reach. Quirke’s opposite-field double brought her home, and Tayler Walker tacked on with a sacrifice fly.

USAO’s leadoff issues continued in the fourth when Leeper homered. Two singles later, Cerny’s start ended.

SOU’s defense again matched the lineup’s prowess. For the fourth time in five games since the start of the opening round, the Raiders didn’t commit an error. In that same span, their opponents have totaled eight.

“There’s so much communication with our defense right now,” Pistole said. “The players in the dugout are talking as much as the ones in the field. It feels like the entire team is out there and aware of what we need to be doing.”