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No. 21 Southern Oregon braces for NAIA opening round

The NAIA softball national tournament begins today at 10 campus sites across the country, and 21st-ranked Southern Oregon University finds itself in Columbia, Kentucky, for an appearance in the Lindsey Wilson Bracket that, until recently, seemed improbable after years of middling in the Cascade Conference.

The Raiders (36-16 overall), who open the double-elimination tournament as the No. 3 seed at 11 a.m. today against 17th-ranked and second-seeded Marian (Ind.) (44-9), are in uncharted territory: They're in the national postseason for the first time since it went to a 40-team Opening Round format in 2013, and they hadn't gotten past the CCC tournament since appearing in the NAIA Regional tournaments five years in a row from 2002-06.

The winner of the SOU-Marian game will play at 2 p.m. Tuesday against the winner of Monday's other LW Bracket game between sixth-ranked and top-seeded host Lindsey Wilson (44-12) and fourth-seeded Ashford (Iowa) (30-22). The losers will play an elimination game at 11 am. Tuesday. Another elimination game is set for 5 p.m. Tuesday, and the championship round will be played Wednesday.

The 10 Opening Round winners will advance to the 36th NAIA World Series on May 27-June 2 in Sioux City, Iowa. Since the inception of the Opening Round, top seeds are 68-22 and have advanced at 21 of 30 sites; No. 2 seed and 53-42 and have advanced seven times; No. 3 seeds are 36-55 and have advanced twice; and No. 4 seeds are 19-65 and have yet to advance.

Lindsey Wilson, bracket's favorite, has advanced to five of the last six World Series and was the national runner-up last season. Auburn Montgomery (48-6) is the two-time national champion but currently No. 2 in the NAIA Top 25 poll behind Oklahoma City (58-2).

LINDSEY WILSON

About: The Blue Raiders took an at-large bid to the Opening Round, in which they are appearing for the fourth straight year and have a record of 8-2… They've gone 28-2 since a three-game slid in mid-March, and five of their last six losses were against top-13 teams… They hit .338 as a team (opponents: .230) and have totaled 58 home runs – more than one per game, the third-highest clip in the nation… Five different players are hitting over .350, led by Sydney Fourman (.408, 18 HR, 61 RBI), Callum Pilgrim (.405, 5 HR, 14 2B, 38 RBI, 50 R) and Jenna Firestein (.394, 59 R, 15 SB)… They've depended on two dominant pitchers, Lyndsey Parden (23-4, 1.33 ERA, 178 1/3 IP, 234 K) and Casey Bryan (20-7, 2.38 ERA, 167 1/3 IP, 114 K), for a team ERA of 1.97 that ranks 17th in the NAIA.

MARIAN

About: The Knights are in the Opening Round for the second year in a row and the third time overall after getting in automatically with the Crossroads title. They're 2-4 in the Opening Round and their only World Series appearance was 13 years ago… During their 15-game win streak, they held opponents to one or no runs 10 times and followed that with an eight-game streak… They feature the Crossroads co-player of the year, Logan Personett (.465, 56 R, 41 RBI), who leads the NAIA in hits (93); the Crossroads co-pitcher of the year, Breena Smith (24-4, 0.96 ERA, 181 2/3 IP, 174K); and the Crossroads newcomer of the year, Morgan Burton (.379, 11 HR, 43 RBI)…. They hit .347 as a team, the ninth-best average in the NAIA, and rank third in doubles (107). Opponents hit .235 and have 81 fewer extra-base hits (65) than the Knights.

SOUTHERN OREGON

About: The Raiders took the fifth of nine at-large bids to their first Opening Round after getting knocked out in the semifinals of the CCC tournament… Their win total is the team's highest since 2006 and the CCC West Division championship was the team's first title since 2005… The key for the Raiders has been in the circle, where all-conference performers Victoria Mackey (16-3, 2.42 ERA) and Sydney White (14-8, 2.48 ERA) have provided consistency, winning the conference ERA title for the first time in 11 years and holding opponents to two runs or less in eight of their last 12 games… The team batting average (.324) is also higher than it's been in 10 years, spurred by speedsters Kelsey Randall (.405, 45 R, 34 SB) and Kayleen Smith (.404, 36 R, 37 RBI, 43 SB)… Smith has set the CCC single-season record for stolen bases, as have the Raiders as a team (120-136) with the ninth-most per game in the NAIA… Defensively, they've committed 41 fewer errors (48) than opponents, resulting in 41 fewer unearned runs allowed (36) than opponents thanks in part to CCC Gold-Glove winners Alexa Gonzalez (third base) and Randall (shortstop) and a rangy outfield of Abigail Lund, Aaliyah Oliver and Megan Winton.

ASHFORD

About: The Saints are making their first Opening Round appearance and needed a remarkable turnaround to get here; on March 10 they were 9-13 after a 12-game stretch in which they went 1-11… They hit .282 as a team (opponents hit .300) but have slugged 27 home runs and 75 doubles and triples… Nicole Schmidt (18-9, 2.31 ERA) is their ace, having logged 182 of the team's 339 total innings in the circle… The middle of their lineup features Siera Spahiu (.416, 7 HR, 35 RBI) and Taylor Ellestad (.338, 10 HR, 34 RBI), while Allie Klasen (.335, 30 SB, 37 R) is features at the top of the order.