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SOU seeks rebound in NAIA opener today

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSOU's Tayler Walker looks for the call during a game earlier this month.

ASHLAND — Southern Oregon University won’t lack motivation when it opens the NAIA Softball Championships opening round today at U.S. Cellular Community Park in Medford.

The No. 1-ranked Raiders (46-5 overall) are hosting the Southern Oregon Bracket, along with the city of Medford, for the third postseason in a row.

They’ll battle with No. 2 seed Morningside (Iowa) (42-9), No. 3 seed Hope International (Calif.) (28-9) and No. 4 seed Saint Katherine (Calif.) (13-19) in the double-elimination tournament for a spot in the 10-team NAIA World Series and the right to finally defend their 2019 national title.

And after losing back-to-back home games for the first time since 2016 in last week’s Cascade Conference Tournament, the Raiders figure to be refocused. They’ll attempt to capture their fourth straight opening-round tourney and join a list of three top-ranked teams to win the national title in the last 10 years.

The winners of each bracket in the 10-site, 40-team opening round will advance to the World Series in Columbus, Georgia, from May 27 through June 2. In 2019, all 10 top seeds advanced.

No. 1 Southern Oregon (46-5)

Ashland / Cascade Conference (26-1, 1st)

NAIA Ranking: No. 1

Run Differential: 422-107 (+6.2 per game)

Last 10: 7-3

Longest Streak: Won 19

Tournament History: The Raiders didn’t make their first appearance in the national playoff field until 2016, and are now appearing in their fifth consecutive Opening Round and hosting for the third straight postseason. The last three appearances resulted in trips to the World Series. In 2019, they went unbeaten in three Opening Round contests — defeating the Cal Pac’s Marymount (Calif.) 5-0 and Hope International 4-1 and 4-3 — before going on to win the national title in Missouri.

Notable: On paper, SOU’s lineup remains the most intimidating in the country with the NAIA’s top marks in runs (8.3), batting average (.411) and hits (11.7), along with the No. 2 slugging percentage (.577). It slumped uncharacteristically in the CCC Tournament, getting shut out for the first time against Oregon Tech and mustering just two runs a day later against College of Idaho.

The Raiders still have seven lineup regulars batting over .400, led by CCC Player of the Year Lauren Quirke (.486, 10 HRs, 17 2Bs, 61 RBIs) — who continued to produce during the tournament at 5-for-9 with three doubles — and NAIA doubles leader Allie Stines (.447, 30 2Bs, 41 XBH).

In the circle, Quirke (14-2, 1.73 ERA) and Gabby Sandoval (26-3, 1.53 ERA) will shoulder the load. Sandoval is looking to bounce back after dropping back-to-back decisions for the first time since her freshman season. She’s sitting on 116 career wins, the fourth-highest total in NAIA history, 10 of which have been compiled in the national tournament.

No. 2 Morningside (42-9)

Sioux City, Iowa / Great Plains Athletic Conference (18-4, 2nd)

NAIA Ranking: No. 13

Run Differential: 356-133 (+4.4 per game)

Last 10: 5-5

Longest Streak: Won 18

Tournament History: The Mustangs have qualified six times for the NAIA World Series, including five times under head coach Jessica Jones-Sitzmann from 2009-16. They’re also in the opening round for the sixth time since its current format was adopted in 2013, but they were eliminated in their most recent appearances in ’17 and ’19.

Notable: Morningside has struggled of late with losses in five of its last eight games, but four of those — and seven of its nine total losses — were against national tournament teams.

The Mustangs bring in the NAIA’s 10th-best scoring average (7.0 runs/game), along with 56 home runs and 103 doubles. The middle of their lineup, with Lexie Stolen (16 home runs), Morgan Nixon (15 home runs) and Ellie Cropley (13 home runs, 20 doubles), is among the most explosive in the country.

Opponents are batting .223 against a deep pitching staff headed by Lisa Bolton (17-6, 2.40 ERA) and featuring Katherine Wurtz (12-2, 2.51 ERA) and Alex Nelson (11-1, 2.99 ERA). Over their last eight outings, however, they’ve surrendered 44 total runs.

No. 3 Hope International (28-9)

Fullerton, Calif. / Golden State Athletic Conference (18-6, 1st)

NAIA Ranking: No. 11

Run Differential: 175-71 (+2.8 per game)

Last 10: 5-5

Longest Streak: Won 12

Tournament History: The Royals are in the opening round for the third postseason in a row after never previously qualifying and are seeking their first World Series berth. Their 2018 bracket included the eventual national runner-up, Columbia (Mo.), and their ’19 bracket included the eventual national champ, SOU.

Notable: GSAC Player of the Year Melanie Okazaki, who was with the Royals when they traveled to Medford in 2019, headlines a top-heavy lineup that bats .302 collectively but features four individuals at .380 or better. Okazaki is at .457 with nine extra-base hits, and Skyler Mao is at .392 with 11 home runs.

The Royals will be dependent on freshman pitcher Allie Puente, who boasts a 14-6 record with a 0.68 ERA and 145 strikeouts over 134 innings. Olivia Candelas is also 14-3, helping HIU to a 1.36 team ERA. The Royals have dropped five of their last eight and were eliminated from the GSAC Tournament by Ottawa (Ariz.), which entered the matchup with an 11-13 record. The only other national tournament team HIU has faced is Saint Katherine, which the Royals swept in four games to open the season.

No. 4 Saint Katherine (13-19)

San Marcos, Calif. / California Pacific Conference (24-3, 1st)

NAIA Ranking: Not ranked

Run Differential: 160-193 (-1.0 per game)

Last 10: 7-3

Longest Streak: Lost 8

Tournament History: In unexpected fashion, the Firebirds are in the opening round for the first time in just their second season as part of the NAIA. They got here by knocking off Cal Pac regular-season champion Simpson (Calif.) in back-to-back games for the tournament title, and are vying to become the Cal Pac’s first representative at the World Series since 2016.

Notable: After starting the season 2-16, the Firebirds have rallied and pulled off the Simpson upsets despite losing all four regular-season matchups with the Redhawks. Cassia Ruiz (.381, 12 XBH) and Addi Betts (.350, 8 XBH) are the toughest outs in a lineup that posts a modest .285 team average.

Four Firebirds have pitched between 40 and 50 innings, and Kaitlyn Bailey’s 4.43 ERA is the best of the bunch.