Raiders headed to World Series for title defense
Ever since its 2020 season was suspended and ultimately canceled 26 games in last spring, the Southern Oregon University softball players’ eyes have been on returning to the NAIA World Series at the next opportunity.
With three straight wins at their postseason home away from home in Medford, the No. 1-ranked Raiders are, at long last, getting that chance to defend their national title.
SOU did so in classic bend-but-don’t-break fashion, getting a go-ahead single from Allie Stines in the bottom of the sixth inning and then seeing senior ace Gabby Sandoval work out of a bases-loaded jam a half-inning later to clinch a 4-3 win over No. 11 Hope International on Wednesday afternoon at U.S. Cellular Community Park and a spot in the NAIA World Series.
“We like to do things the hard way here as shown with many of the games that we play,” SOU senior first baseman Tayler Walker said with a laugh. “We talked a lot this week about having a ‘natty’ (national championship) mentality. Our mantra this year is ‘natty is now,’ so we were approaching every single game like it’s the natty and when we’re at the natty we don’t let down.”
SOU (49-5), which beat Hope International on the same field two years ago in the decisive NAIA opening-round game to advance to the World Series, will now head to Columbus, Georgia, for the 10-team tournament. The Raiders open play on Thursday, May 27, against an opponent that is expected to be announced as early as this morning..
Just two No. 1 seeds remain in the tournament, and they just so happen to be rivals from the same conference: Southern Oregon and Oregon Tech.
“It brings tears to my eyes to think that I have another day with them,” said Stines, who along with Sandoval and third baseman Lauren Quirke decided to come back this year after their senior seasons were halted last March. “This team is just so worth it. Everybody is worth it.”
To clinch that ticket to Georgia, though, SOU had to sweat things out as much as any game they played this week.
Hope International (30-11) tied the game at 3-3 in the fourth inning on a solo home run by first baseman Emily Puente.
SOU had runners on in the fourth and the fifth, but couldn’t bring them in and retake the lead. That finally changed in the sixth thanks to Stines, who blooped a single just over the head over Hope third baseman Melanie Okazaki to drive in Rylan Austin and put SOU ahead 4-3.
“I put the ball in play and got it done,” Stines quipped. “I didn’t need anything spectacular, but that was enough. I had enough faith in my teammates and I had to believe in myself first. I came off of a missed sign (earlier in the game) and it happens. You just have to bounce back and do it for your team and do it selflessly.”
With a one-run lead, the Raiders turned things over to Sandoval.
It quickly turned into a stressful inning after a throwing error put the would-be tying run at second. Royals leadoff hitter Caitlyn Felina hit a grounder to Austin at shortstop. With a runner at second, Rena Flores, caught in a rundown, Quirke appeared to apply the tag as Flores headed toward third. The umpire, however, ruled that Quirke missed the tag attempt, according to SOU head coach Jessica Pistole. For added measure, Felina advanced to second during the rundown, resulting in the potential game-winning run moving into scoring position.
Sandoval hit the next batter to load the bases, but then got a pop-up and a line out to end it.
The liner off Puente’s bat was met by the leaping Hannah Shimek at second base, as she used every bit of her 5-foot-10 frame to corral the ball.
“I knew she was going to catch it,” Walker said. “It was kind of one of those things where I jumped with her, but I knew. We were playing back and we knew that girl came that way pretty hard, so we were playing pretty back already to go either way, up or down, whatever we needed to do.”
Sandoval, who for the second straight day recorded just one strikeout against Hope International, improved her record to 29-3. She scattered seven hits in her third straight complete game of the tournament.
“She just has gotten tougher and tougher with each game since last week and just the work that we’ve put in this week.” Pistole said of Sandoval. “She’s getting squeezed a bit in the strike zone, having a couple of plays where I would arguably say we had five outs in that inning, but just to stay composed and control the things that we can control as a team, it starts with her.
“She just didn’t get rattled, and she’s been working on that. That’s absolute grit and she’s been working to stay composed in those situations.”
Walker, who had a clutch, three-run double in Tuesday’s win over Hope International, got SOU on the scoreboard in the bottom of the second after the Raiders fell behind 2-0, launching a solo home run that squeezed just inside of the foul pole.
Stines and Quirke gave SOU the lead an inning later. First it was Stines, who lined an RBI single up the middle to tie the game at 2-2. Two batters later, Quirke drove in her team-best 62nd run of the season with an RBI single to right.
Stines and Quirke both finished 3-for-4, while Austin and Avery Morehead-Hutsell each recorded two hits with a run.
“We just have a strong mentality and we have to be (unfazed) all the time,” Stines said. “There are so many uncontrollables in this game and we just have to be our best even if things don’t go our way. We have the power to control our attitudes and effort, and that’s what will get us to the end no matter what.”
They did it their way, without a doubt.
And now, for yet another season, they’re heading to the World Series because of it.
“Hallelujah, man,” Pistole said in regard to what was going through her head when the final out was recorded. “This is just one stop in our goals and our journey, but this is a big one that we had to get past. It’s awesome and we’re excited to be heading there (to Georgia).”
Reach Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.