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Raiders set to defend CCC Tournament crown

A top-heavy layout of the Cascade Conference may have made for some forgettable weekends in the regular season. It set up the tournament, on the other hand, to be one of the more compelling slugfests in recent memory.

The six-team, three-day, double-elimination CCC Championships presented by U.S. Bank will commence at 9 a.m. this morning at University Field. Fourth-ranked Southern Oregon (42-7) — the top-seeded host, attempting to become the first team to win three consecutive titles — will play its opener at 2 p.m. against the winner of an early game between fourth-seeded Corban and fifth-seeded Carroll (Mont.).

SOU won the regular-season championship by a game over second-place Oregon Tech - the difference being a Raider sweep of the Owls in mid-March, when two of the games were decided in SOU’s last at-bats. The Raiders, 10th-ranked OIT, College of Idaho and 17th-ranked Corban — the tournament’s top-four seeds — dominated the rest of the CCC, going a combined 67-5 against the other six teams in conference games.

Playoff Picture

SOU’s spot in the 40-team NAIA Softball Championship was secure the moment the Raiders were chosen on April 24 as one of 10 Opening Round hosts. However, they also took the CCC’s first automatic tourney bid by wrapping up the regular-season title with a week to spare. The conference’s second bid will go to the tournament champion — or, in the event SOU wins it, the other finalist. On Tuesday, the entire NAIA Opening Round field will be announced, and the tournament will play out May 13-15. For the second year in a row, SOU is partnering with the City of Medford to host its four-team, double-elimination bracket at U.S. Cellular Community Park.

Raider Tournament History

Going back to 2017, the Raiders have won six consecutive CCC Tournament games in becoming the first team since Oregon Tech in 2011-12 to win back-to-back championships. They’ve victimized Corban in three of those games, including the 2017 final in Salem, and defeated Eastern Oregon for last year’s championship in Ashland. This marks their sixth consecutive postseason appearance. It’ll be their fourth straight appearance in the Opening Round and they’ll seek their third straight trip to the 10-team NAIA World Series, but prior to this run they’d never even advanced to the title game of the CCC Tournament (which originated in 2010). Over the previous five seasons, the CCC sent five different schools to the NAIA World Series.

Short Hops

At 27-3 with a 1.07 ERA, Raider ace Gabby Sandoval has already tied CCC records for wins and shutouts (12) in a season. The junior — whose opponents’ average went from .247 as a sophomore to .165 this year — the third CCC Pitcher of the Year in SOU history; Brandi Brown (2003) and Miranda Gillaspie (‘04) are the only previous winners. Her effectiveness has historically been up to par postseason play: In 78 2/3 career innings of playoff work spanning 13 starts and five relief appearances, she’s 8-1 with a 2.49 ERA.

A tightly-contested and wide-ranging CCC Player of the Year conversation is sure to include Lauren Quirke, SOU’s junior third baseman and pitcher. At .470, Quirke is on pace to break SOU’s single-season batting average record (.463, Meghan Laughlin), and with five home runs, eight triples and 15 doubles, her .744 slugging percentage is the second-best in the league. Quirke is one of 11 players in the conference batting .390 or better; last year, there were two such players.

Elsewhere in SOU’s lineup, Allie Stines finished the regular season batting .420, and with 23 doubles she’s one shy of tying the conference record. Olivia Mackey, meanwhile, batted .394, the No. 8 mark in the conference, and has hit safely in 37 of SOU’s last 44 games out of the No. 8 spot in the order.

Sophomore second baseman Hannah Shimek is coming off a one-hit series at College of Idaho but should find some comfort in tourney play. During the 2018 postseason, she was the Raiders’ hottest hitter in going 24-for-49 (.490) with a 13-game hitting streak and five extra-base hits.

Prior to last week’s losses at C of I, the Raiders had won 18 consecutive CCC road games dating back to 2017. Their overall CCC winning streak ended at 22 games, a new conference record.

With 19 errors in conference games, the Raiders committed fewer than any team in the CCC, just ahead of OIT (22) and Corban (22). They also topped the conference in the category last year with 26.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSOU’s Paige Leeper makes an out during game 1 Friday afternoon.