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Raiders primed for softball title defense

Top-seeded Southern Oregon opens Friday against Bethany College
Lauren Quirke leads a potent Southern Oregon University offense.

It’s difficult to imagine a team being better prepared for the NAIA softball World Series than defending champion Southern Oregon University.

The Raiders, the No. 1 seed who begin play at 4 p.m. Friday against No. 9 Bethany College in Columbus, Georgia, boast three “super seniors” who are among the best in the country at their respective positions.

The trio received an extra year of eligibility because last season was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, and this year they joined a roster already rife with experience due to the presence of eight seniors.

SOU is making its fourth straight appearance in the season-ending showcase, so there aren’t likely to be any surprises.

Further, eight of the top-seeded regional host teams were upset in their opening-round series.

It seems reasonable to consider the Raiders prohibitive favorites.

“Yes, on paper, and yes, in terms of who these women are,” said coach Jessica Pistole. “But the crazy part is, it’s still been two years since there was a postseason. It’s been two years since you’ve played games where you’re playing for the next day. It’s different than in the regular season, where you’re getting back in the swing of just playing.

“There’s a different mentality — and some would call it pressure — that comes with fighting for the next day and kind of a do-or-die style. I definitely am confident in this group and in our preparation, but it definitely wasn’t an easy road to get here.”

SOU is 49-5 and faces a Bethany (30-27) team, from Lindsborg, Kansas, that opened Thursday with a 2-0 victory over Milligan (Tenn.) College.

The Raiders arrived in Georgia early Tuesday morning, have practiced each day since, tended to schoolwork and, generally, have enjoyed their time together, said Pistole.

COVID-19 restrictions aren’t extreme — teams aren’t confined to their hotels — but the pre-tournament banquet was nixed, players and staff were asked to quarantine prior to arriving and they are being tested for the virus every other day.

The regularity with which SOU appears in the World Series hasn’t lessened the thrill of returning, said Pistole.

“It’s definitely not ho-hum,” she said. “It’s something we work for every year. No matter what it seems like is expected of you, you still have to get there, especially with the obstacles and the hurdles, all the COVID pieces and everything. It’s something we don’t take for granted at all. We’re super excited to be here and just thankful for the opportunity to come back here and defend our title and fight for another one.”

In the last World Series, the Raiders claimed their first national championship with an 8-3 victory over Oklahoma City University in Columbia, Missouri.

The Raiders’ three super seniors — pitcher Gabby Sandoval, infielder/pitcher Lauren Quirke and catcher Allie Stines — played monumental roles in that 52-8 campaign and, given the opportunity, couldn’t resist a repeat attempt this year.

Sandoval, 29-3 with a 1.47 ERA, has a career record of 119-20 and would climb to No. 2 on the all-time national wins list with three victories.

In the 2019 World Series, she went 4-1 with a 1.99 ERA.

Quirke was the World Series most valuable player two years ago and was this season’s player of the year in the Cascade Collegiate Conference. She leads the Raiders with a .486 batting average, which is sixth in the nation, and has a 15-game hitting streak. She ranks third in the NAIA in total bases (143) and fifth in RBIs (62).

Quirke contributes in the circle as well, registering a 14-2 record with a 1.73 ERA.

Stines, too, has been hot the past 15 games, going 29-for-50 (.580) with 10 extra-base hits, 26 RBIs and 20 runs.

She’s second on the team in hitting with a .450 average, and her 31 doubles are tied for No. 2 in NAIA single-season history — four short of the record established in 1997.

Needless to say, having the trio back provides a unique dynamic.

“For sure,” said Pistole. “We’ve never had fifth-year players before. It’s been a little bit of an adjustment for them, like how to be in this extra class we’ve never had before. There’s a certain responsibility and excitement that comes with being a senior.”

The holdovers blended well with their teammates.

“We had a big senior class already,” said Pistole. “We had to adjust and create the super-senior class, and they’ve done such a good job of allowing the other seniors to lead while bringing their own experience and drive and mentality to the group.”

If SOU didn’t already have enough going for it, the postseason shake-up seemed to further clear the path to a title defense.

SOU and Oregon Tech — two of three CCC teams in the field, along with College of Idaho — were the only opening-round No. 1 seeds to advance. They are also the only schools returning from the 2019 field, when all 10 first-round top seeds made it to the World Series.

Since the opening-round setup was instituted in 2013, there had not been more than two Nos. 3 or 4 seeds in a given year to make it through. This season, there were seven.

“I don’t even know why,” said Pistole, who suggested that limited scheduling, with some teams forced to play only teams in their immediate regions, could have affected schedule strengths.

Still, she’s not of a mind that the path will be easy.

“Every team is bringing their hunger,” said Pistole. “It’s the 10 teams that should be left standing and have earned the right to fight for a championship.”

Southern Oregon, which needs four wins to break the school single-season victory mark for the fourth straight year, leads the NAIA in runs per game (8.1) and batting average (.408).

It has gotten production up and down the lineup.

Four other players who have started most of the games are hitting above .400: Riley Donovan (.427), Hannah Shimek (423), Rylan Austin (.421) and Katrina Winterburn (.409). A fifth, Avery Hustell-Morehead is at .397.

Quirke leads the team with 10 home runs, and Donovan has hit six.

After Quirke, Stines has 59 RBIs and Donovan 58.

Shimek leads with 62 runs, Stines has 60 and Quirke 58.

“Top to bottom,” said Pistole, “that’s one of the things. Whoever’s up in any given situation, there’s a confidence that that person’s going to get it done. Whoever we put in that lineup or on the field for that day, it’s the same confidence. To me, it’s not necessarily one, two or five players. The numbers are the numbers, and they speak for themselves.”

In Bethany, the Raiders face an opponent that has continued the upset trend. The Swedes knocked off No. 8 Milligan to get to SOU.

Pistole had little first-hand knowledge of Bethany prior to the World Series but had the luxury of scouting Thursday’s game.

The Swedes lost 14 consecutive games at one point before entering Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference play, but they’ve 21 of their last 24 games.

Pitcher Samantha Quezada allowed just three runs in 21 innings in the opening round, going the distance in three straight wins.

Against Milligan, she pitched a three-hitter with seven strikeouts and no walks. Bethany only managed two hits, but one was a two-run home run in the first inning by Ciera Flores.

The SOU-Bethany winner plays at 1 p.m. Pacific Time Saturday against No. 4 College of Idaho, a 4-2 winner Thursday over No. 5 Ottawa (Kan.).

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@rosebudmedia.com.