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No. 1 SOU laments inability to repeat title run

Wednesday was supposed to be a special day for the Southern Oregon softball team.

The reigning NAIA national champions were scheduled for an afternoon game in Eugene against the USA women’s softball national team.

With the abrupt news Monday that the Raiders’ season was being canceled by the NAIA in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, now all those players have to look forward to is, well, yet another day off they’re unaccustomed to getting this time of the year.

“A bunch of those national team players are players who we all grew up watching and we had a once in a lifetime opportunity to play them and actually get to experience that,” said SOU senior third baseman Lauren Quirke. “Having that taken away was definitely rough just because that was going to be a really cool experience for our team, something we could all do together and share as a memory we would never forget.”

That one exhibition game, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg of what the Raiders feel like they’re missing out of moving forward with the cancellation of the final stages of their season due to coronavirus concerns.

Only a year ago, they gathered together and celebrated the first NAIA national championship in program history, promising that it was their mission to do it all again in 2020.

Now they won’t have a chance, despite a No. 1 ranking and 23-3 record entering what was supposed to be a nice long upcoming homestand.

“We were excited about where we were and we felt like we earned that vote of confidence that we were the No. 1 team in the country and wanted to prove that ranking was appropriate,” said SOU interim head coach Mike Mayben, who took over for Jessica Pistole after two years on her staff following a run at North Medford High that included four state championships.

“We feel disappointed that we don’t get to go on the field and do that,” he added, “but we definitely feel like we did the right things and we played the game the right way, we competed hard at practice and we were prepared.”

Added Quirke: “To have that chance taken away right when I think we were rolling was really tough.”

Sure, the Raiders would have to continue to develop moving forward this season, but the pieces were all in place for another amazing run to the title.

Their team motto was to play as long as they possibly could together and, up until Monday, the last day possible was to be May 27.

“It’s rough,” said Quirke, “but at the same time, it is what it is. There’s nothing we can do about it, it’s out of our control.”

With senior All-American standouts Quirke and catcher Allie Stines in prime form for a squad that returned eight starters, and reigning NAIA pitcher of the year Gabby Sandoval still inside the circle, there’s little doubt why SOU had such high hopes.

Minus official stats from their recent four-game sweep at Providence (Mont.), where the Raiders outscored their opponent 42-13 overall, Quirke was batting .500 with 20 runs and 22 RBIs, Stines hitting .464 with 18 runs and 24 RBIs and Sandoval at 11-0 with a 1.65 ERA.

As a team, the Raiders were batting .348 with a pitching ERA of 2.21, and all signs pointing to them truly finding their groove.

“I still think we had a lot of growing to do as a team,” said Sandoval, who became the Cascade Collegiate Conference’s winningest pitcher earlier this season. “We were doing really well and I do believe we would’ve made that transition into being an unstoppable team to make a pretty great run at the national championship. I think we could’ve won another one. Actually, there’s no doubt in my mind that we would have. It’s just kind of tough knowing it was all taken away just like that.”

The difficulties don’t begin or end there.

With the NAIA also ruling Monday that no spring student-athletes will be charged a season of eligibility for this lost campaign, that throws another wrench into matters now that seniors may elect to return next year.

“I think it’s great that we’re getting that opportunity,” said Sandoval, “the only hard thing is that us seniors will be done with school after this so eligibility-wise when we’re in school how that would play out is unknown.”

Added Mayben: “As far as seniors and really everybody that’s returning goes, they’re going to have to make fairly hard decisions because it’s not as simple as, ‘Oh, I get another year of eligibility so I just come back.’ It’s how much is it going to cost, how do I spread out credits if I decide to come back, do I have to have a full load of 12 credits or more and am I willing and able to do that. There’s just a lot of unknowns and until all of this passes for us as a society we really can’t answer those questions.”

For his part, Mayben has talked with his players, those on the current roster as well as future committed freshmen or junior college athletes, and prioritized that they focus on their own mental and physical health and let the rest come at a later date.

“I’m really encouraging players not to dwell on that too much,” said Mayben. “Don’t spend every waking hour reading Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and going to social media to hear some update or somebody else’s thoughts on the subject. Just know kind of what your plan would be if you had the opportunity to come back, kind of what your limits are, and just leave it at that, and once we get all the information then you can make your decision.”

There are seven seniors on Southern Oregon’s roster, with a similar handful of recruits slated to join next year. The NAIA allows for 10 full scholarships in softball, and those monies are then parceled out on a case-by-case basis, with factors including potential federal assistance and pre-qualified academic scholarships or grants for players.

“Every school is going to be different in how they honor those scholarship dollars, and some schools are not going to be able to do it,” said Mayben. “Some schools may say we just don’t have the budget in our athletic department to add that and other schools may say, yeah, we have that in our endowment program and will honor it.”

The fact that SOU is talking about only needing to carry over potential scholarship dollars for “super seniors” in softball and track is helpful, but there could be other prevailing issues.

“If everybody comes back, which we would want everybody to come back and everybody we’ve recruited to come in, that would put our roster around 30,” said Mayben. “The realities of a 30-player roster, that just doesn’t make a ton of sense, so at some point teams have to have that discussion and make that choice. I just don’t want any player or anybody out there pressured to worry about that yet, we’re just not at that point.”

While Quirke said she hadn’t given any thought to her next step as a player, her initial concern was potentially interfering with any team chemistry the program was trying to build for next year and moving forward.

“With so many ideas being thrown around right now,” said Quirke, who was last year’s World Series MVP, “there’s no set plan so you can’t really weigh the pros and cons of whatever they want to present us with as an option anyway. All of us are just going to have to wait and see and then make the best decision for us and for the program in general.”

Sandoval agreed.

“I would love to come back and play another year,” said the Anaheim, California, product, “but all the cards would have to fall in the right place for me to come back and my family would have to be able to send me to school for another year. I hope I can come back, but right now there’s just a lot of thinking that I have to do.”

And if her time as a Raider was complete, Sandoval said she and her fellow seniors could feel satisfied with what they were able to accomplish.

“It definitely doesn’t ease the heartbreak,” she said, “but it’s great knowing that we do have that championship ring and we’re leaving a legacy behind that’s just going to continue to grow.”

Mayben said he hopes to celebrate the seniors, who missed out on their senior day opportunity with the canceled season, potentially during graduation ceremonies in June so all their families and friends could gather with them.

“I’ve let them know what an honor it was to be a part of their journey,” said Mayben, “and we’re going to do whatever we can to honor them officially with their parents and the public after we know more moving forward.”

“For now, the bigger picture is far more important than softball,” he added. “We’ve enjoyed the journey softball-wise with them but I look forward to walking that path with them through this global pandemic and how we can influence those around us in a positive way as student-athletes and coaches as we go through it together.”

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Andy Atkinson / Ashland TidingsSOU’s Lauren Quirke watches the ball clear the fence hitting a homerun in the 1st game Friday.
Southern Oregon University's Gabby Sandoval pitches against Oklahoma City at the NAIA Softball World Series in Springfield, Missouri on May 29, 2019.