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Sandoval powers SOU past Corban in CCC tourney

To understand Gabby Sandoval’s mastery of her diverse repertoire, which includes no less than six pitches, one need only focus on the bat-on-ball contact she tends to induce from the circle: slow-rollers, lazy pop-ups, squibbers, the occasional fly ball.

That’s a pretty good summary of her latest performance in Southern Oregon’s 4-1 Cascade Conference quarterfinal victory over Corban on Friday at University Field.

But to fully grasp the junior right-hander’s mental toughness, consider her senior year in high school:

A star pitcher for Mater Dei High of Anaheim, California, Sandoval led her team to a 7-0 start to the season and a berth in the championship game of the prestigious Dave Kops Tournament of Champions in Bullhead City, Arizona, before taking a line drive to the forehead. The impact spun Sandoval around and knocked her off her feet, but somehow didn’t rattle her focus.

“It was my senior year and I didn’t want to be out, so I got up and tried to walk back to the dugout and my coaches were yelling at me, ‘Sit down!’” she said, laughing at the memory. “So I sat down.”

Sandoval, who did not suffer a concussion, missed about two weeks before making her return, eventually leading Mater Dei to an 8-2 victory over Orange Lutheran, the No. 2 team in the country at the time, to capture the CIF Southern Section Division I title. She outdueled Maddy Dwyer, who now pitches for Stanford.

On Friday, facing a Corban team that’s seen plenty of Sandoval this season, she struck out five and walked one in a complete game to earn her 28th victory of the season — she’s 28-3, a CCC record. The win also advanced the Raiders (43-7), ranked fourth in the country, to today’s conference semifinals at 2 p.m. against 10th-ranked Oregon Tech.

Somewhat intimidating with her smeared-on eye black and the sort of circle swagger that comes with a sterling 1.07 ERA counting Friday’s gem, Sandoval is also somewhat notable, at least for those who know her history, for what she does not possess: a facemask.

The safety accessory for pitchers would seem a natural precaution for somebody like Sandoval, who flinched a little after every curve thrown for weeks after getting drilled for fear she’d take another shot. But she just didn’t like the feel.

“My parents tried to get me to wear a mask, but I didn’t like it,” she said.

Now, hardly anybody can get ahold of one of her pitches hard enough to do much damage. Corban did manage seven hits against Sandoval, but three of those were infield singles, and the Warriors narrowly avoided what would have been Sandoval’s 13th shutout when Makiah Johnson delivered an RBI single to right with two outs in the seventh.

The rest of the game was classic Sandoval. She started the game with back-to-back strikeouts, got a pair of pop-ups to the catcher in the second inning, induced three straight pop-ups in the fifth and smothered the Warriors’ best chance to make a game of it in the sixth — a two-on, one-out situation — by fanning Mahina Chong with an 0-2 riseball.

“I’m so proud of (Sandoval),” SOU head coach Jessica Pistole said. “She’s really done a fantastic job just making all the parts of her game consistent, and that was what she really put her heart into working on this year. She really wanted to be mentally tough out there in whatever the situation so she put a lot of time and energy into strengthening that.”

SOU scored what turned out to be all the runs it would need in the first inning, when Corban starting pitcher Sarah Probasco hit Tiana Brown with the bases loaded to bring home a run, and reliever Lauren Besse plunked Paige Leeper to make it 2-0.

The Raiders, who were the designated road team despite playing on their home field, added an insurance run in the fourth when Tayler Walker drove in Hannah Shimek, and tacked on their final run in the seventh on an Olivia Mackey RBI single.

Corban, meanwhile, struggled to string together hits against the versatile Sandoval, who throws a screwball, curve, off-speed curve, riseball, change-up and fastball — her go-to pitch being a nasty screwball that jams right-handers.

“She’s incredible,” SOU catcher Allie Stines said. “She’s so accurate, and she has the best work ethic I’ve ever seen. She just grinds and grinds. Every time she gets an award for what she does she just works that much harder, and it’s so cool to be with a teammate like that.”

SOU’s spot in the 40-team NAIA Softball Championships was already locked up after the Raiders were chosen on April 24 as one of 10 opening-round hosts, but Sandoval said they’re still motivated.

“It doesn’t really change (our approach) too much, we’re just kind of taking it game by game,” she said. “We want to win this tournament, of course. We don’t need to, but our mentality is we want to win this tournament and we want to take it all.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Andy Atkinson / Ashland TidingsSouthern Oregon University first baseman Taylor Walker connects for a hit in the fourth inning of Friday afternoon’s Cascade Conference tournament game against Corban at University Field.
Southern Oregon University pinch runner Mackenzie Evangelisti is tagged out at home trying to score a run in the seventh inning of Friday afternoon's Cascade Conference tournament game against Corban at University Field.