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SOU's 'super seniors' ready for one last hurrah

ASHLAND — In the weeks after the NAIA shut down the 2020 softball season in March as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, seniors at Southern Oregon University and across the country were faced with a choice.

Do I stay or do I go?

The NAIA granted a free year of eligibility to athletes who saw their seasons end due to the pandemic. But, at the same time, many seniors were either very close to graduation and trying to figure out post-college life or maybe even had the first few steps already figured out with their diplomas in hand.

Softball, for some, was done when the 2020 season stopped.

But not for all. Especially those vital to SOU’s national championship in the spring of 2019.

While not all seniors from the Raiders’ 2020 team have returned, the three that have come back for one last hurrah just happen to be three of the Raiders’ most important players from their national title-winning team two years ago: 2019 NAIA pitcher of the year Gabby Sandoval, All-American catcher Allie Stines and All-American third baseman/pitcher Lauren Quirke, the MVP at the 2019 NAIA World Series.

“It was really heartbreaking last year, so we just weren’t done yet,” said Sandoval, who holds eight single-season or career records at SOU. “We felt it in us that we weren’t done, so from the beginning I kinda felt like I was going to come back, but I just had to figure things out.”

It was no different for Stines, who was hitting .481 and leading the country with 14 doubles when the season was called off last year.

“I was not OK with how things ended — at all,” she said. “That was the end of my career last year and I was like, ‘Well, that’s not how I want to go out. It’s been almost 20 years playing softball, that’s really how we’re going to end this right now?’ It took awhile because I really thought I was done because I had graduated. But then they put the offer on the table to come back, and I said that I really do want to come back.

“This team really is to die for, and I told myself that I was going to go do this, we’re going to go try and win another natty. I just really wanted to finish out my career on a note that was under my terms, not the circumstances of the world.”

With those three seniors back, the roster head coach Jessica Pistole has — if all goes according to plan and the Raiders open their pandemic-adjusted 2021 season — will look a lot like the one she last had when SOU won its first-ever national championship.

Pistole, who is making her own comeback to the Raiders after coaching last year at the University of San Diego, welcomes seven starting position players from last season’s team. In 2020, under interim head coach Mike Mayben, SOU was ranked No. 1 in the nation with a 23-3 record and was 13-0 in Cascade Conference play.

The Raiders are scheduled to open the season on Feb. 5 against Simpson University in Redding, California.

“When we found out the NAIA had granted seniors an extra year, I was like, ‘OK, I can’t walk away from that,’” Quirke said. “I was supposed to have an internship start a couple of months after graduation, but that got pushed back. So if that isn’t a sign (to come back), then I don’t know what else is.”

All three players have already graduated, meaning they had to stay enrolled in classes if they wanted to extend their college careers another season. They decided to either take more classes within their major or add another minor, like Sandoval, a Health & Physical Education major who has a psychology minor and will soon have one in education.

Stines was the first to decide to come back, although she wanted her decision to be independent from Quirke and Sandoval. The Raiders’ All-American catcher kept things rather hush-hush so that her decision didn’t influence that of her fellow seniors.

But it proved to be the domino that got things rolling.

“Allie, Lauren and I, we were just communicating the whole time and I knew once Allie and Lo came back that I was going to be right behind them, too,” Sandoval said. “Part of me just really wanted to finish my career out no matter what. I wanted to play softball one more time.”

Sandoval, who had a busy fall trying to juggle both practice and work to help pay for her final year of school, was in the midst of another dominant season at SOU when the pandemic shut things down. She was 13-0, her 1.66 ERA was the best in the Cascade Conference and she again averaged more than a strikeout an inning through her first 16 appearances (12 starts).

Quirke and Stines, each of whom are part of the strong pipeline between SOU and the College of San Mateo in California, are the Raiders’ top two returning hitters in what was one of the best lineups in the country last season.

Stines, Sandoval’s batterymate since she took over the catching duties from former NAIA Player of the Year Harlee Donovan at the start of the 2019 season, was the Raiders’ leader in RBIs (31) and doubles (14) last spring.

Quirke, one of the best pure hitters to ever put on an SOU jersey, will again take her place in the center of the Raiders’ lineup. She was hitting a team-best .488 in 25 games last season. Her .444 batting average in 2019 ranks fifth among single-season totals in program history.

As a team, SOU ranked 15th in the nation in 2020 with a .355 batting average.

This year’s lineup will look a lot like that one, and the one that captured the 2019 NAIA title.

Quirke looks forward to the season “because, for the most part, it was the same core and we already know how we are together.

“If we can capitalize on that opportunity and play together again and basically go out there and see what happens in terms of a season, if we can play together one last time and make the most of it, that is what I wanted to do.”

If the 2021 season gets underway on time as SOU hopes, it will be 11 months since SOU stepped on the diamond for a game.

That isn’t lost on the seniors who chose to came back.

Same goes for members of the 2020 team who wanted to defend their 2019 title.

The chance to have one last hurrah as a group, especially under the circumstances, is what matters most.

“It just brings a lot more meaning to it now,” Stines said. “We have teams at our school who aren’t even having a season. I know we were the first ones to lose our seasons, but it’s in no way easy for anybody, especially knowing that we may be the only team out there able to play. It definitely creates a lot of meaning out there representing each other and our school, and hopefully (we can) go win again if we have that option.”

Reach Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.

Southern Oregon University RHP Gabby Sandoval chats with catcher Allie Stines during the first round playoff game against Marymount at US Cellular Community Park on Monday.(PHOTO BY: LARRY STAUTH JR)
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSOU’s Lauren Quirke connects for a hit in the 2nd inning.