Raiders rally to split twin bill against rival Owls
ASHLAND — The Southern Oregon University softball team has become accustomed to University Field being a place where they’ve racked up plenty of wins during their rise to national prominence.
But for the first 10 1/2 innings of Wednesday afternoon’s doubleheader against rival and top-ranked Oregon Tech, SOU was a team that was struggling to put it all together.
Then came the turning point, and the rest was almost a state of normalcy from there.
Eighth-ranked SOU dropped five runs on OIT in a breakout bottom of the fourth, grabbing the lead for the first time all day en route to an 11-7 comeback win over its rivals from Klamath Falls.
It earned the Raiders a split against the Owls after Oregon Tech — the current Cascade Conference leaders — claimed an 8-7 victory in Game 1, and prevented SOU from being swept in a home doubleheader for the first time since April 2016.
“It was barely scratching our capability, but I’m glad to see a fight,” said SOU head coach Jessica Pistole of the doubleheader. “It was great to see that we can do that (in Game 2) and I know that about us, but we’ve got to be more consistent. We have to do the little things that we work on every day and we have to have consistent approaches at the plate and do the little things on defense.”
Wednesday was the first time that SOU (23-7, 8-3 CCC) and OIT (27-5, 13-1) faced each other since the Raiders beat the Owls in back-to-back games in the championship round of the NAIA World Series last June to claim their second straight national title.
Oregon Tech, which has maintained its No. 1 national ranking all season, was also just coming off making a statement over the weekend in a four-game sweep of fellow conference title contender and No. 3-ranked College of Idaho.
And just for added measure, the Owls rolled into Ashland with the highest-scoring offense in the NAIA.
Southern Oregon and Oregon Tech possessed the two top ERAs in the Cascade Conference, with the Raiders having previously allowed just one earned run over its previous 49 innings coming into Wednesday’s twin bill.
But the two rivals’ abilities with the bats was the theme this day.
The Owls looked like they were going to make it another sweep of their closest competition in the CCC to start out Game 2.
Oregon Tech jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the top of the first, giving starting pitcher McKenzie Staub a lead to work with even before she faced an SOU hitter. OIT then extended its early lead to 5-0 an inning later thanks to an SOU error.
The Raiders, who have the second-highest run total in the nation, got two runs back in the third on Cayla Williams’ fourth home run of the season, a booming opposite-field blast to right field.
Then came the bottom of the fourth, where the Raiders’ fortunes quickly turned for the better.
North Medford alum Rylan Austin scored on a blooper to left field by No. 9 hitter Sarah Kerling to cut the deficit to 5-3. Moments later, Erika Marquez came around to score on a dropped popup by Oregon Tech shortstop Kaila Mick. Kerling then tied the game when she scored on a botched rundown between second and third after a Riley Donovan groundout.
Williams gave the Raiders their first lead of the afternoon on a two-out double to center field before Phelicity Fa’aita capped the surge with an RBI triple to the wall in left.
In just one half-inning, the Raiders had doubled their hit total for the game.
“I think what clicked was that we needed to create our own energy,” said Williams, a junior transfer from West Valley Community College. “Those runs helped, but we realized in the dugout that it shouldn’t matter what the scoreboard says, we should be able to make our own energy and play like we’re behind all the time so that we can score those runs.”
Williams, who got the start in Game 1, came out of the bullpen to throw the final three innings of the nightcap. She picked up the save in relief of freshman Mayze Menefee, the second of three pitchers Pistole used in Game 2.
In her three innings of work, Williams allowed one hit and one run and worked her way around three walks.
Fa’aita and Austin each added two-run singles in the sixth to give SOU some much-needed insurance runs.
Williams and Fa’aita each finished 2-for-3 with three RBIs in Game 2, and they both had a pair of home runs in the twin bill. Austin also had a pair of hits in the nightcap.
“It was just nice to play our game and play with no fear,” said Williams. “Just play how we know how to play and not care about runs.”
The Raiders also fell behind right out the gate in the opener, as OIT gave its All-American right-hander and reigning NAIA Pitcher of the Week Sarah Abramson a 1-0 lead in the top of the first. SOU tied it at 1-all in the second on the first home run by Fa’aita, a solo shot to left-center.
But the Owls scored six unanswered to open up a 7-1 lead entering the late innings.
As it turned out, OIT needed every bit of its big lead late, as Williams hit a three-run home run to left field in the fifth. Fa’aita added her second homer of Game 1 in the seventh, a three-run shot that bounced off the top of the wall and over in right-center.
The Raiders outhit the Owls in both games of the doubleheader, 7-6 and 11-9.
But what loomed large for Pistole and the Raiders in Game 1 was a trio of errors that led to a pair of unearned runs and Oregon Tech scoring twice on first-and-third plays.
“We have to play defense,” said Pistole. “Defensively, we have to find our edge. There’s a mentality that needs to click.”
The Raiders will wrap up a span of 10 games in less than a week when they travel to Eugene this weekend to face Bushnell in doubleheaders Friday and Saturday.
It will be the start of a 10-game road trip for SOU, which has won eight of its last 10.
“We ended that game well and it was nice to end it that way,” Pistole said. “We’re ready to continue this trek of 10 games in seven days and then we’ll get a day off.”
Reach reporter Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.