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Donovan thrives as SOU’s chief power broker

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Following in her older sister’s footsteps, SOU’s Riley Donovan rewrites Raiders’ record book

ASHLAND — Following in the footsteps of a talented older sibling can be a difficult proposition.

For Southern Oregon University star junior catcher Riley Donovan, she’s made it look like no big thing at all.

One booming home run at a time, one RBI at a time.

And there’s been plenty of both.

For the past two years, Donovan has done nothing but destroy opposing pitching and has quickly become one of the best hitters in the NAIA, with a 2022 season full of record-breaking moments in leading a new-look SOU lineup that leads the nation in multiple categories.

If you’ve heard something like that before from somebody with that last name, it’s because you have, with the previous Donovan to don the catching gear at SOU being older sister and former NAIA player of the year Harlee, who was one of the driving forces to the Raiders’ rise to national prominence.

“I think that there used to be this pressure but, honestly, something for me is that I’m incredibly proud more than anything of her and it makes me more inspired,” said the younger Donovan, who was named the Cascade Conference player of the year on Thursday. “I’ve always been inspired to work just as hard as Harlee and to just be a lot like Harlee. She’s always been my inspiration and somebody I’ve always looked up to, so trying to make her proud has been my goal.”

Two of the biggest single-season records that Riley has broken this spring — you guessed it — were previously held by Harlee.

“It’s been really exciting,” said Riley of breaking her older sister’s records for single-season home runs and RBIs. “Because of the COVID year at (College of San Mateo), I got that opportunity taken away from me there, so to get that opportunity here is really, really cool. It was really cool to celebrate with my teammates — and they were super excited for me, which was really cool to see.”

Nobody can deny that the Donovan family knows how to hit.

Both Harlee and then Riley showed it at Half Moon Bay High, then at College of San Mateo — with former Raiders All-American catcher Allie Stines in between — and now in Ashland at SOU, a program that has become one that the Donovan family truly holds close to their hearts.

And to hear the Donovan sisters talk hitting — Harlee is an assistant coach with the Raiders this season — is something that is a pretty fun conversation to even be a fly on the wall for.

“If you’re smart, you listen, right?” quipped SOU head coach Jessica Pistole. “They are definitely in a space where it’s something that they want to get better at.”

“I’ve been incredibly fortunate to coach both of the Donovans,” continued Pistole. “They’re very, very different and that’s been fun to watch them both develop as players but more importantly as women and as people. Having Harlee on staff has been really cool, too, with her getting to coach her sister and for Riley to just learn from her perspective.”

The key for Riley through it all? Just be Riley.

“I went to the same JC as Harlee, too, so that’s kind of something that everybody around me has been super intentional about when it comes to separating us,” said Riley. “That’s always made me feel like I have my own path and I have my own purpose.”

That’s proved to be a simple yet incredibly good strategy.

In being named the CCC’s player of the year ahead of the No. 8-ranked Raiders’ conference tournament opener in Klamath Falls on Friday afternoon, the younger Donovan has only continued to show why she is one of the most feared hitters in the nation.

It has involved being pitched around more than ever before — she’s drawn 46 walks in 56 games this season, three times more than any one of her teammates.

If the season ended today, her .503 batting average would shatter the single-season school record, set last season by another former NAIA player of the year and CSM alum Lauren Quirke. That comes after a debut campaign in Ashland where she hit .448 with eight home runs and 66 RBIs en route to earning second-team All-American honors.

Riley’s 17 home runs this year, a single-season school record that was previously set by Harlee in 2018, as well as her video game-like batting average both rank third nationally.

Her 83 RBIs, another single-season school record that was set by Harlee in 2018, is the highest total in the NAIA this season. Same goes for her 81 hits and .611 on-base percentage.

And for the cherry on top, she’s struck out just seven times in 161 at-bats.

“She’s a rockstar,” said Pistole. “She’s awesome. She’s so much fun to coach, she’s so much fun to be around, she’s got such a big heart and big personality. She works really hard to be really consistent and unfazeable regardless of the situation.”

But when it comes to the stats she’s putting up this season, Riley’s interest is more on the team’s success rather than the individual. When asked about her sky-high batting average, she didn’t even know it was that high. It’s all about how SOU does and what she can do to help the Raiders add onto their current winning streak, which stands at 17 games entering the CCC tournament.

“I don’t really worry about that,” said Riley of her personal stats. “I want to worry about the team and what’s next. I’m kind of more worried about what I can do for the team and what can get us the next ‘W.’”

With Riley leading the way, Southern Oregon — which will again host a four-team NAIA Opening Round regional in Medford later this month — leads the NAIA in runs scored (470) and team batting average (.392).

“It’s been really fun to watch,” said Riley. “Everybody’s really gotten into their groove and it’s been so awesome to see everybody’s confidence grow. Just watching all of the different tools that we have is really cool to watch it go into play in games and seeing us succeed and get the ‘W,’ it’s so cool.”

This season has been vastly different for Riley for one major reason: A year ago, she could look around the diamond and see senior after senior, many of whom were part of SOU’s first-ever national championship-winning team in 2019.

This season, however, every one of those seniors has graduated, albeit with another national title ring to show off to friends and family.

Riley, the NAIA World Series MVP last spring and certainly one of the top candidates for NAIA player of the year this season, has been thrust into the leadership spotlight.

It’s been different, but considering that she plays the position she does, being a leader only comes naturally.

“I think the biggest thing is that it’s been a learning curve for everybody,” said Riley. “I was on a team full of seniors last year, everybody was just on top of it because they were all veterans and they knew how the game was played and how we operated as a program. This whole season has been learning that. It’s been really fun, it’s been really hard, it’s been really frustrating, but it’s been super rewarding.

“Last year was amazing, but this year we’ve gotten to write our own story.”

That story has included plenty of home runs and SOU being on the cusp of another 50-win season and potential NAIA World Series appearance to defend its national title.

“Honestly, I think our team is perfectly capable of taking it all the way,” said Riley. “I think our expectation is just putting our heart and soul into every single game and every one of us will be happy with what happens as long as we do that. At the end of the day, all we can ask of each other is to give everything that we’ve got for each other and for ourselves. We should be able to get the outcome we want if we do that.”

Reach reporter Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSOU's Riley Donovan at practice in Ashland Wednesday.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSOU's Riley Donovan during batting practice in Ashland Wednesday.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSOU's Riley Donovan tries to tag out Oregon Tech's McKenna Armantrout during game one.