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The time is now for SOU softball

ASHLAND — For 11 months, the Southern Oregon University softball team has been playing the waiting game.

The waiting game of when exactly the Raiders’ next game will be following a national title defense that came to an unceremonious end 26 games into the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think it’s like how everyone in the world is experiencing it and we are very much taking things day by day,” SOU senior outfielder Olivia Mackey said. “New things could pop that could set us off course, but how we play into the adversity aspect is really what our team has bought into. We always stay prepared, always stay on our toes for whatever.”

SOU, once again ranked No. 1 in the NAIA’s preseason coaches’ poll, doesn’t have to wait much longer, as the 2019 NAIA national champions have a February full of nonconference action starting today in Redding, Calif., against Simpson University.

With their national-title winning head coach back in the fold and a roster flush with familiar faces — including three “super seniors” who were named All-Americans in 2019 — the Raiders enter the 2021 season with the same aspirations and a familiar mantra that they had last spring and the one before that.

“Natty is now,” Mackey said with a laugh. “It’s only right.”

That’s the bar that head coach Jessica Pistole, who returned to the program in May following a pandemic-shortened season at the University of San Diego, has raised this program to expect.

They’re also well aware that this season is going to be like no other simply because they’ve already seen how this pandemic can affect things.

“This year is so unique and we’ll never again be in this exact space. And we can still be champions in the year of COVID,” said Pistole, who went 219-82 during her first stint as SOU head coach. “That’s something this group understands, to work to be champions and what that means. We all need to be reminded of that on a daily basis whether we’ve experienced it or not. They understand what we’re doing and the process of it.”

The top-ranked Raiders will be the first SOU team to return to the field since the pandemic shut down activities last March.

At the time games were suspended (and ultimately canceled) last spring, SOU was 23-3 overall, 9-0 in Cascade Conference play and on a 13-game winning streak.

“It’s exciting because we finally get to play,” SOU senior third baseman/pitcher Lauren Quirke said. “This is the day we finally get to see where we’re at, and it’s just been a really long time. Practices are one thing, but game day just has a completely different spirit to it. Just being able to do that again, obviously safely, is going to be really special and exciting.”

As Pistole gets ready to coach her first game at SOU since the national championship decider against Oklahoma City University on May 29, 2019, so many of the players she recruited to be a part of the Raiders’ title-winning team from two years ago are still around.

Seven starters who have national title rings from the Raiders’ historic 2019 campaign are back. The battery that led SOU to the program’s first-ever NAIA title, right-hander Gabby Sandoval and catcher Allie Stines, are back after the two seniors decided to use the extra year of eligibility the NAIA granted all seniors in the class of 2020 as a result of the pandemic. Same goes for Quirke, the 2019 NAIA World Series MVP who herself is a “super senior” and was hitting .488 when play was suspended last season.

The right side of the Raiders’ infield that has been the same since their freshman season in 2018, second baseman Hannah Shimek and first baseman Tayler Walker, are both entering their senior seasons. Same goes for Southern Oregon’s pair of all-conference picks in the outfield, Mackey and Avery Morehead-Hutsell.

With so many players back from a national championship-winning team, it’s easy to see why the Raiders are ranked No. 1 again this season.

But it’s also one that, while adding players with each recruiting class, has essentially grown up together at the college level and once again has a target on their back.

“Honestly, we just let it fuel us,” said Mackey, a first-team all-conference pick in 2019, of being ranked No. 1 again. “We don’t look at it as something that blows our heads up or anything like that. It’s just something that, OK, yeah, it is there, but that means we have to work even harder because people may be looking at us differently or may not be looking at us differently. Everyone is out to beat everyone, so we just continue to work hard whether the circumstances are one way or another.”

As has been a trademark of all of Pistole’s SOU teams, she’s got options and depth once again this season. The Raiders aren’t locked into a set starting lineup. Instead, Pistole, the 2019 NAIA Coach of the Year, will once again have the ability to turn to her reserve players and move parts around the diamond as need be.

“That is the beauty of this team — there’s a ton of versatility and lots of options,” Pistole said. “It will depend on the matchups and what we need at that time. We have a group of people that are just incredible at embracing their roles. It doesn’t mean they’re not fighting for a different role or continuing to push to be in a different space but, at the end of the day, that they recognize it’s not their decision and they’re incredible teammates.”

So much of the Raiders’ mindset has to do with the groundwork that Pistole laid down from her first days on the job in 2015.

While the end goal may be to compete for — and ultimately win — another national title, her players know they can’t get there unless they take care of the present day.

It doesn’t matter if it’s in practice or in a game against a top Cascade Conference rival, the focus is on what’s right in front of them and building toward the big prize.

And staying focused on the present rather than peeking weeks into the future is now even more important as games begin again amidst a pandemic.

“I think now more than ever the idea of now and being present is something we’ve really tried to emphasize in all of our years here, but it’s one of those things that it’s a strong reminder for all of us,” Pistole said. “Just being able to take advantage of our time together, take advantage of the ability to get to prepare. We’re definitely preparing to play, we’re preparing to play in the month of February, we’re preparing to be ready to play in conference and that’s going to prepare us to be ready for the postseason.

“But, it’s real and we’re at the mercy of some things that are out of our control — and, in all honesty, we always are. I think this particular year, just even with the boxes that we have to check to even get on that bus and get to that first field that we play, there’s that very real idea of this is what we have, right here is what we have, today is what we have and we have the ability to be at our best.”

Simply having Pistole’s presence back in the program has helped as the Raiders have managed preparing for a 2021 season during a pandemic.

“Oh, it’s been fantastic,” Stines said when asked about Pistole’s return to SOU. “I think (then-interim head coach Mike Mayben) did a fantastic job putting his own twist on everything and trying to just get after it. There was no difference in mentality or anything, but having (Pistole) back is great. She’s been super optimistic during the whole COVID situation. There’s no stopping her and that’s exactly what everybody needs right now is just her being there to support us and keep pushing us.”

Before the NAIA shut things down last March, SOU — which was under the direction of Mayben, who remains on Pistole’s coaching staff — was once again one of the best offenses in the nation. Five of SOU’s starters were hitting above .350, and the Raiders’ .355 team batting average ranked 15th in the nation.

With Sandoval back to lead the pitching staff once again, the Raiders know they’ve got depth in the lineup and in the circle.

And there’s no doubt after 11 months of waiting following a season ending right when it was starting to hit its midway point, the still-reigning national champions are ready to make 2021 look a lot like 2019.

“I think we all just know never to take a day for granted because you truly never know when your last day could be on the field,” Mackey said. “Really just making that known and saying it out loud makes it real and really just makes everybody work harder because you just never know when the last day is.

“We’re so ready and I think we’re all very eager (to play again) because the time off was long. We’re just very prepared.”

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

Southern Oregon University Olivia Mackey, a first-team all-conference pick in 2019, ranked third on the team with a .391 batting average before the COVID-19 pandemic shut the Raiders’ 2020 season down in mid-March. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
Southern Oregon University second baseman Hannah Shimek is one of seven starters back from the Raiders’ 2020 squad that was 23-3 overall before the COVID-19 pandemic shut their season down in mid-March. Andy Atkinson / Mail tribune