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Journey sweetens SOU’s championship

Southern Oregon players, from left, Tayler Walker, Riley Donovan and Lauren Weinberg chant “Raiders” from the dugout against Oregon Tech on Wednesday in Columbus, Georgia. Photo by Darrell Roaden

Given a chance for everything to fully sink in after a whirlwind week in Columbus, Georgia, Southern Oregon University softball coach Jessica Pistole took a deep breath Thursday night during a small window in the return trip to Ashland.

Pistole hadn’t really taken time to consider her feelings after her Raiders claimed a second straight NAIA national championship, and her mind was filled with a frenzy of gratitude.

“I can’t even describe how proud I am of these women,” said the coach. “It’s been so much fun. The whole week (at the NAIA World Series) was incredible, and just those last two games (Wednesday against Oregon Tech) were pretty fitting to how it went for us with so much fight that we showed.”

“I just love this group, I love these women,” she added, “and I just could not be more proud of what we all just accomplished together. It’s still totally unbelievable to me.”

Unbelievable in the sense that the top-ranked Raiders never got a chance to vie for a title in 2020 due to the COVID-19 cancellation of that season but remained resolute to stand once again in that spotlight if given the chance.

Unfathomable in all that the players and coaches had to overcome just to put forth a 2021 season — 61 games in all — with no positive coronavirus tests despite constant checks and a myriad of restrictions and obstacles along the way.

Awe inspiring that one team could shoulder such a burden of championship expectations, battle through adversity and ultimately prove that confidence and love for one another could be just enough to overcome anything that stands in the way.

The top-seeded Raiders (55-6) completed their season with five straight elimination victories at the NAIA World Series, clinching their back-to-back championship Wednesday with exhilarating wins over rival Oregon Tech.

SOU forced a winner-take-all finale with an initial 3-2 triumph over the No. 2-seeded Owls, then completed the doubleheader sweep in thrilling fashion with a 7-5 triumph in nine innings to set off a celebration that intertwined relief, redemption and revelry.

“We decided to take the long road — we definitely like to make it interesting — but it was an awesome, awesome experience, and I wouldn’t have rather had it any other way,” said SOU junior Riley Donovan, who was named 2021 NAIA World Series MVP. “It was really, really cool.”

The only topper may come Wednesday, when the SOU softball program will be feted for their accomplishments with a championship parade in Ashland that begins at 3:30 p.m. and will wind its way from Safeway to the bandshell in Lithia Park, where a trophy presentation will take place around 4 p.m. Fans are encouraged to attend and wear red.

“I’m definitely looking forward to that, it’s exciting,” said Donovan. “It’s going to be fun to walk with my team and share that moment.”

“It’s definitely a good feeling to know how many people we made proud to be an SOU Raider,” added the cleanup hitter. “It’s just been a super-cool experience and to be able to do that for our seniors for their last go-round — the super seniors that decided to put their future on pause to come back — and be able to get them that title is the best part, honestly. I don’t think anything feels better than that.”

The moment definitely wasn’t too big for Donovan and company Wednesday night against Oregon Tech, which had a 14-game winning streak entering the final two games and were the Cascade Conference tournament champions.

SOU rode the stellar pitching of super senior Gabby Sandoval in Game 1 as she clinched her 122nd career victory to put her No. 2 on the NAIA’s all-time list. Another super senior and 2019 World Series MVP, Lauren Quirke, joined Donovan with key RBI hits to help separate from the Owls.

In Game 2, senior Hannah Shimek supplied two triples — driving in two runs with the latter — while senior Tayler Walker and sophomore Rylan Austin came through with back-to-back RBI singles and senior Olivia Mackey raced home on a wild four-base error following a smash off the shortstop to help build a 5-1 advantage.

That lead may was erased by Oregon Tech’s two-out rally in the bottom of the seventh inning, but not the Raiders’ confidence that they would still prevail.

“There was never a doubt, honestly,” said Pistole. “Even when OIT fought back and tied it up, there was just such a confidence in what we knew we were there to do.”

That faith paid off not long after Quirke relieved Sandoval in the seventh to get the game into extra innings. After a scoreless eighth inning pushed the game into the late hours of a tense Georgia night, Donovan muscled a 1-0 pitch over the center-field fence for SOU’s go-ahead run.

“She was so clutch for us the entire week,” said Pistole of Donovan, who went 11-for-17 with two home runs, eight RBIs, seven runs scored and drew a team-high seven walks in Georgia.

“The adjustments that she made mentally heading into this week were phenomenal,” added the coach. “At the plate she was seeing the ball so well and she really understood her zone and just knew when she was going to attack and when she was going to let those pitches go. It was a perfect end for her, such a great job.”

Donovan said she was simply looking to play her part in SOU’s story.

“Truthfully, I wasn’t trying to do anything special,” Donovan said of her eighth HR of the season. “In my head when I step into the box, I am just trying to chip away. When you are trying to win a game, you have to chip away as a team because softball is a team sport and it can’t just be put all onto one person. So I was just trying to chip away and get that hit so that somebody could score me, and I ended up scoring myself, which is kind of cool.”

Donovan said she knew the hit felt good off the bat, then everything kind of became a blur.

“I remember seeing my coach’s face and then seeing my team’s faces when I walked into the dugout, but that’s pretty much it, honestly,” she said with a laugh. “It’s one of those silent moments where everything goes quiet, for sure.”

While it certainly wasn’t silent for anyone else in the dugout, the roar only increased with an insurance run courtesy of an RBI triple by Mackey that scored Walker.

“We were all stoked,” Donovan said heading to the bottom of the ninth up 7-5, “but I think the seventh inning showed that literally anything can happen, so I was not going to feel relief or excitement until that third out, that’s for sure.”

With two on and one out in the bottom of the ninth, Quirke closed the door with a strikeout and then Mackey was sure-handed on a liner to right field to set off a long-coming celebration.

“It’s hard to even believe the way that those two games went,” said Pistole. “I still sit here and shake my head with the dramatics of it and how did that even happen. It was unbelievable. That’s all I can say, it was just unbelievable and I’m so proud. Never did I doubt that we could do it but taking that route was the hardest way possible.”

Belief in each other played a big role for the Raiders, according to Donovan.

“We were just so prepared and we were just so confident in everybody,” she said of SOU’s winning mindset. “Gabby in the circle was so confident and so ready to attack any player that stepped in the box; Allie Stines behind the plate was working so hard for Gabby and our entire team; and just the whole lineup one through nine was working so hard for every single person. We were doing it for each other and we were just so excited to be able to play against OIT. Honestly I wouldn’t have wanted it to be any other team because they were so deserving to be in that top-two spot as well.”

The adversity of having to bounce back from a stunning early exit in the conference tournament courtesy of Oregon Tech and College of Idaho, then hitting the reset button only to drop into the loser’s bracket after a semifinals loss again to the Yotes, remained fresh in Pistole’s mind Thursday night.

Did it make the 2021 national title a little more sweet for the Raiders to have their backs against the wall for so long with no room for error and still come out on top? Probably so.

“This one was so hard, it was so hard,” said Pistole in comparison to the 2019 title. “It was just so different. Our road for the week was so different and honestly it was just a doggone battle and fight for each other to just have more games together.

“That part did make it that much sweeter, the hill that we had to climb to get to that point. These women just pulled in to fight for one another, and it was just phenomenal to be part of that.”

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry