Parade of champions
ASHLAND — Winning an NAIA national championship seemed more realistic for Southern Oregon University’s softball players than the setting they found themselves in Monday, but both achievements proved equally rewarding for the groundbreaking Raiders.
After capturing the first national team title for any women’s sport in SOU history with an 8-3 win over Oklahoma City last Wednesday in Missouri, Southern Oregon’s softball players and coaches were feted with a parade through campus that drew around 150 supporters.
“This is super special just because we were so far away from home when we won,” said Raiders junior shortstop Paige Leeper. “We obviously got lots of messages of support but to physically see everybody here, I think this is the moment that has made it feel all real. Just being in this environment, I’m so excited to be with everybody right now.”
Toting a red championship banner along with their championship trophy down Siskiyou Boulevard en route to a final gathering at Lithia Motors Pavilion, the moment almost seemed surreal for Raider players like junior pitching ace Gabby Sandoval.
There were handmade signs held by their SOU peers, unified chants of support and fans and friends of all ages who came out to make sure these young women knew how much it meant to the Raider community that they were able to overcome all obstacles in securing their spot in school history.
“It’s honestly crazy,” said Sandoval of Monday’s moment. “We didn’t know how big this was going to be until we got back here and realized how much we brought this back to SOU and to Ashland in general. It’s just a great feeling to know that everyone is so supportive and is so happy for us.”
From the last day of last season, the Raiders presented a unified front that they, in fact, would become national champions in 2019. But all of that energy was spent thinking of how to make it happen on the field, certainly not what the reaction would be once their goal was met.
“I definitely envisioned us winning, but all this is so beyond my expectations,” said Sandoval, who allowed seven hits and one earned run with five strikeouts in the title clincher. It was her 33rd complete game and ran her record to 36-4, the 10th-most wins in NAIA single-season history.
“Everyone just being so amazing is beyond anything that I thought would actually happen,” added Sandoval.
SOU President Linda Schott praised the Raiders for their undeniable camaraderie and the joyful spirit in which they represented the school throughout a breakout season that saw them go a school-record 52-8 overall, with several players also earning NAIA academic recognition.
“This is such an amazing accomplishment for our university,” said Schott. “From my perspective as the president, something like this is really good for the university because it’s an indicator of our commitment to the success of our students, whether they’re in the classroom or they’re out on the softball field, and these young women are successful in both places.”
The moment also served as a motivational boost for SOU athletes beyond the softball program, with players and coaches from each of the Raider sports programs lined up along Siskiyou Boulevard paying tribute to their cohorts.
“It was important for us to get out here to just see that it is possible, that not just the softball team can do it but everybody else in the school can do it, too,” said Tre Holmes, one of several SOU football players on hand. “We’re all super proud of them and couldn’t be more excited for them that they brought the championship home to the hometown of Ashland. It gets me excited for next year and gets me ready to go and do the same thing next year.”
That excitement wasn’t just reserved for the younger set currently at SOU, mind you. A host of Raider alumni were on hand, with smiles as broad as if they had earned the championship themselves.
One notable figure that stood out was Larry Binney, a 1970 graduate who played baseball for the Raiders during his day and evolved into someone whose name is synonymous with softball in the Rogue Valley due to his legendary coaching success at North Medford High and later at SOU.
Not surprisingly, Binney had ample praise for current SOU softball coach Jessica Pistole and the impact she’s had in her five seasons at the helm. Pistole has taken the Raiders to three consecutive NAIA World Series when they’d never appeared in one previously.
“I am so happy and just so proud,” said Binney. “I was fortunate to be on the interview committee when Jessica was hired and she was hands down going to be the person that was going to lead this program here. She just does an awesome job; I think the world of her. The kids work hard — and she’s very demanding — but she loves them so much, too.”
That love was certainly evident when Pistole took time to address her team Monday, promising not to cry during her remarks but also seeing her voice waver at times.
“I’m just so proud of this team,” said Pistole. “The commitment and dedication that this team, this group, has shown has obviously paid off, but it’s special and it’s unique.”
The Raiders’ ability to identify a seemingly unreachable goal and believe to a person that they were going to do it, according to Pistole, will resonate for years to come.
“I just love that and I appreciate that,” she said of the team’s confident but hard-working approach. “That’s something that’s going to go with this program from here on out.”
In the winner-take-all contest last Wednesday, it was Leeper’s first-inning grand slam that helped set the tone that, yes, the Raiders were more than capable of seizing their moment.
“It was super unreal,” she said of her second home run of the championship tourney. “I had never done that in my career and I definitely got choked up and I shed a couple tears just because I wanted to do something for my teammates. The fact that it was that, I couldn’t have scripted that. I’m just so proud of all of them and I’m just so excited for what the future holds for us all.”
After growing up in Eagle Point and starring for the Eagles, Leeper said her entire goal was to win a national championship and that perfectly coincided with what she was hearing from Pistole as the coach’s main goal during her recruitment.
To be able to realize that, with family and friends so close from her hometown, Leeper said she couldn’t imagine a better feeling during Monday’s celebration.
Well, except maybe for another parade in 2020.
“I’m so excited to bring this national championship back to Ashland, Oregon, and I’m so excited to do it again next year,” Leeper said to a rousing cheer.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry