Raiders parade through Ashland to celebrate title
ASHLAND — Ever since Senior Day back on the first day of May, Southern Oregon University head softball coach Jessica Pistole has had a message written on her car by her players.
“I coach national champions,” it reads.
Now, while it’s a lot less legible than it was six weeks ago, that statement is still very much the case after Pistole and the Raiders went on to win their second national championship last week on a thrilling day against arch-rival Oregon Tech in Georgia.
That’s what made Wednesday so special to each person in SOU gear as the latest title-winning softball team paraded down Siskiyou Boulevard and then Lithia Park. It was a day, despite the rain, to officially celebrate the accomplishment with the hometown crowd at following a whirlwind trip across the country and back.
“It’s super special just because the Ashland community is so supportive of us and everything that we just went through,” said senior third baseman/pitcher Lauren Quirke, who was named NAIA Player of the Year this week. “Coming home and to bring that home is so special. … It was awesome seeing this many people out here, especially when the weather wasn’t very inviting. Seeing people coming out of their stores or in the middle of downtown, it just made everything worth it.”
You better believe the Raiders weren’t going to let an uncharacteristic June storm rain on this parade.
With so much of the team that won the program’s first national title still intact from 2019, there were plenty of championship rings on display as the players made their way to Lithia Park.
But even a week removed from the final out falling into Olivia Mackey’s glove in right field and adding a second title in three years, it’s still very much a surreal feeling for many SOU players.
“No, no it hasn’t. It’s starting to set in, but it’s still like a dream, honestly,” Mackey said with a laugh. “I just feel so blessed and it’s been the best four years of my life and having it end that way, I couldn’t imagine it any other way. That’s what we work for, that’s what we prepare for and having it end that way was just the icing on top of the cake to a really, really hard year.”
“It has not sunk in yet,” said SOU senior second baseman Hannah Shimek, one of SOU’s five All-Americans. “People have asked me about 500 times if it’s set in and it still hasn’t. I feel like this is just another thing, I’m coming back next year to play and I don’t think it’s going to set in quickly. I’m kind of thankful it hasn’t because I still feel like it’s not over.”
It took athletic director Matt Sayre more than just a couple of minutes to list off the amount of records the 2021 team set on its way to the title.
There was a another team record for wins with 55, and plenty of individual ones: Quirke set the Cascade Conference career batting average record at .470, senior catcher Allie Stines set a conference record with 73 doubles and All-American starting pitcher Gabby Sandoval was part of 227 wins, more than any other SOU player in any sport in school history.
The senior class, whether they were four-year players who came in as freshmen or players who transferred in from junior colleges, allowed the SOU softball program to get to the mountaintop after it advanced to the NAIA World Series for the first time in 2017.
Those seven seniors went a combined 181-32 during their time at SOU.
“I really see your team as almost a microcosm of the university. I think you demonstrate the skills that we hope to instill in all of our students,” SOU President Linda Schott told the players. “The grit, that’s a word I’ve heard a lot today. The perseverance. The dedication, the commitment, the love for each other, the devotion to a cause and a goal bigger than yourselves. The discipline, the skill, the knowledge — those are all things that you have really personified at the highest level.
“We are so grateful that you shared all of those skills and talents with us.”
Stines, the lone player to address the crowd, spoke about the pride the team had being the only SOU athletic squad able to compete in the early weeks of 2021. The players were able to represent their school, she said, and do something that so few athletes could at the time the softball season got underway.
They did so while sticking to the Cascade Conference’s COVID-19 protocols, with weekly testing becoming the norm before each weekend series.
As Stines proudly shared with the crowd, not one SOU player tested positive during the 2021 season.
They had their softball bubble, they stuck to it, and they stayed disciplined so that the virus didn’t disrupt the potential they knew they had.
“That was what we were so worried about and why we kept super tight-knit because we could risk it all and we’re all working on a bigger ultimate goal for each other,” Mackey said.
Wednesday was one of the payoffs for all the work they put in, all the virus protocols that they had to follow.
The smiles were plentiful, even as there were plenty of masks being worn.
Even though it looked a little different than the parade in 2019 because of the pandemic, the appreciation for so many people coming out was still very much there.
“It feels so good, and it’s such a great honor to be so loved by the people of this community,” Stines said. “It just makes me so happy to see everybody out here and supporting us and following us all the way through even three years ago, four years ago. I love this community.”
There was plenty of adoration and appreciation to go around on this day.
And make no mistake: What is written on their head coach’s car will forever ring true.
“I absolutely coach national champions,” Pistole said. “I coach a group of incredible, strong women. They are hilarious and have so much fun. I have so much fun with these women and they love each other deeply, they love this university deeply. They’re committed to doing things the right way and being all about everything that we’re about and everything they’re going to pour themselves into they’re going to do it with everything in them.
“Yes, we’re national champions. This is a group of national champions, but this is a group that is going to face anything that comes at them for the rest of their lives.”
Reach Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.