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Quirke making teams pay at the plate, in the circle

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune SOU's Lauren Quirke gets a base hit during a game against Warner Pacific at University Field.

ASHLAND — Trading her infielder’s glove for a pitching glove in the middle of a doubleheader is nothing new for Lauren Quirke.

Neither is hitting the absolute stuffing out of the softball.

Quirke, one of three “Super Seniors” on the No. 1-ranked Southern Oregon University softball team’s roster this season, has made the 2021 season look a lot like her previous two in a Raider uniform. There have been plenty of big hits, plenty of big strikeouts and a whole lot of winning as the Raiders have picked up where they left off from the previous pandemic-shortened season.

“It’s just maintaining the balance of the two and focusing on the task at hand,” Quirke said. “When I’m on the mound, my focus is going to be what my job is there. When I’m in the (batter’s) box, I’m focusing on the task at hand there.”

As the 23-1 Raiders look to continue their best start in program history, Quirke is on the quest for some history of her own.

Quirke, the 2019 NAIA World Series most valuable player, is in the midst of one of the best runs in the circle that an SOU pitcher has ever had. Entering Southern Oregon’s big weekend series against rival and No. 5-ranked Oregon Tech in Klamath Falls that begins Friday afternoon, Quirke — who is 8-1 with a 1.71 ERA in 10 appearances (nine starts) — has gone 36 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run, one inning shy of tying the school record.

It’s a run that started with Quirke throwing a perfect game against George Fox, becoming the first SOU pitcher to accomplish the feat since the program was brought back in 2001.

And that’s on top of the fact she’s hitting close to .500, is one of the team’s top run producers — again — and is in the heart of a Raider lineup that leads the NAIA in hits and is in the top five in six offensive categories.

“In all honesty, none of it surprises me at all,” SOU head coach Jessica Pistole said. “She’s been a great offensive player and I think that just kind of comes first for her, but ever since she came to SOU she’s definitely had the ability to be a dominating force in the circle. It feels really natural to be putting that together this year as well as the confidence that she exudes from the circle. The success that she’s had so far, I think those things go hand in hand, for sure.”

The reason for Quirke’s continued development — and subsequent success — as a pitcher is easy for her head coach to identify.

“She’s just worked. She’s worked on the things that have been more inconsistent for her in the past and really just owned her stuff and when she can throw it,” Pistole said.

“Lo has to believe, work on it and execute it, but it also is directly attributed to (assistant) coach (Cheyenne) Bricker, who’s calling pitches. To be able to utilize what they bring to the table and who we’re facing and where we want to attack, there’s just a whole lot of trust that is there.”

Quirke, an All-American at third base in 2019, didn’t pitch much during her prep days at Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, California. But once she got to junior college at the College of San Mateo, she started playing the utility role, splitting her time between being an infielder and a pitcher.

That continued when she came to SOU prior to the Raiders’ national championship run in the spring of 2019. And now, two years later, Quirke is taking full advantage of the NAIA granting seniors another year of eligibility due to the pandemic ending the season in mid-March last spring.

Quirke and SOU senior ace right-hander Gabby Sandoval rank third and first, respectively, in ERA in the Cascade Conference. In Quirke’s start last Thursday against Warner Pacific, a two-hit shutout, she struck out a career-high 13 batters, helping push her strikeout-to-walk ratio to 59-to-12 this season.

Offensively, Quirke’s numbers look a lot like what she was doing before last season abruptly ended. After hitting .484 in 25 games last year, she’s at .494 through the Raiders’ first 24 games this season, which is fourth-best in the CCC. She’s tied for the team lead in RBIs with another College of San Mateo alum, catcher/designated hitter Riley Donovan, the younger sister of former NAIA player of the year Harlee Donovan.

For a player who just wants to try and contribute in whatever way she can, Quirke is doing just that, playing a familiar leading role for one of the best offenses in the NAIA.

“I’m super proud of her. In all honesty, though, it’s what I expect out of Lo,” Pistole said. “She just operates that way. I know her (pitching) numbers have been, up to this point, better than in previous years, but she’s always had that about her. She’s a competitor, she’s a fighter and she really puts in the work. For me, it’s just her mentality — she’s dialed. And it’s super impressive and I’m super proud of her, but it’s who I know she is. So, I’m not surprised in the slightest.”

Some might find it difficult to balance being such a good hitter and then pitch in most doubleheaders after Sandoval, who became just the ninth pitcher in NAIA history to join the 100-win club earlier this month.

But Quirke has found that happy medium where one thing doesn’t affect the other.

She doesn’t take the rare bad at-bat — again, she’s getting a hit nearly half the time she steps up to the plate — out to the circle. If she has to work out of a jam in the circle, it doesn’t hang around in her head if she’s due up to the plate the next inning.

“If I have a bad at-bat and then I have to go out and pitch, I’ll take a couple of seconds, take a sip of water, regroup and then get back out there,” Quirke said. “I just can’t dwell on what just happened. It’s basically just regroup, get back out there and go.”

“It’s just about staying relaxed and not making any situation or any at-bat bigger than it is,” Quirke continued. “Just keeping the same mindset of staying to the task at hand. If there’s a runner on, my plan is to put a ball in play so we can score that run. It’s the overall goal of helping the team win and keeping it simple.”

Keeping it simple has led to plenty of success. But it has also helped Quirke when she’s a part of the lineup that is so deep and so dangerous from the leadoff spot to the No. 9 hitter. Quirke’s video game-like batting average would be the best on many teams in the country. But not at SOU, where senior catcher Allie Stines — who is also a “Super Senior” after she transferred to SOU from San Mateo before the 2019 season — is hitting an even .500.

As a team, SOU is hitting .403, which is second nationally behind OIT.

“It’s so awesome. Our lineup is so deep, and that just makes it so much more fun,” Quirke said. “It totally takes the pressure off because it allows, at least for me, to keep it simple and just trust that literally any person in our lineup can get the job done. I know if I don’t get it done, then the person behind me can get it done and I have no doubt about that.”

Twenty-four games into a 2021 season she wasn’t sure she would have, the decision to come back for one last go-around looks better by the day. It doesn’t matter if it’s a big strikeout or a big hit, Quirke’s just happy to be contributing to Raider wins again. And making a little bit of history — with the chance for more — along the way.

“In the fall, it was so back and forth whether we would have a season and we had no idea we would even be playing right now. It was that hopeful feeling and we’d be ready to go if it happens,” Quirke said. “But it just makes the stress and the anxiety of the fall and the unknown of the fall worth it just because we get to play, get to play together and we’re doing well. We’re going to just keep building off of what we’ve been working on. It’s been totally worth it, for sure.”

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