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SOU advances to NAIA World Series for third straight year

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MEDFORD — The question hovered after its ace shouldered the first five games of the postseason without an ounce of relief, and it was probably fair: Does Southern Oregon possess the pitching depth to be a national championship contender?

Yes, the Raiders answered out of necessity Wednesday in a 4-3, come-from-behind defeat of Hope International (Calif.) for the Southern Oregon Bracket title in the NAIA Opening Round. And they also have the championship chops.

In the finale of the four-team, double-elimination tournament at U.S. Cellular Community Park, SOU was down its No. 1 pitcher, Gabby Sandoval, and down on the scoreboard for the first time this month when junior Lauren Quirke stepped into the circle. Her four shutout innings of two-hit relief gave the offense a chance to make its move, and she was in the middle of two-out rallies in the fifth and seventh innings that yielded three unanswered SOU runs.

Sophomore first baseman Tayler Walker came through with the game-tying and game-winning hits, sending the Raiders (48-7 overall) to the NAIA World Series for the third consecutive season.

“I’m so proud of this team for giving itself and opportunity to win a national championship,” said Jessica Pistole, whose team had never reached the World Series before she took over as coach five years ago. “As much as we believed and knew that was our end goal, you still have to win the games to get there. It doesn’t matter how great of a season you have — if you don’t bring your best every game, it’s going to be an abrupt ending. Top to bottom, we got an absolute performance from the entire team today and all week.”

The top seeds at all 10 Opening Round sites won their brackets, meaning the Raiders will remain the No. 4 overall seed at the final site next week in Springfield, Mo. They’ll open the double-elimination tourney on Thursday, May 23, at 2 p.m. PDT against No. 5-seeded Lindsey Wilson (Ky.), with the winner advancing to potentially play No. 1 Science & Arts (Okla.), the defending champion.

They’ll travel with some added comfort thanks to Quirke’s clutch performance.

The 11th-ranked Royals (46-14), needing to defeat the Raiders twice for the title, hit up Sandoval for a run in each of the first three innings after she held them to one in a complete game Tuesday. Quirke came on to start the fourth inning, down 3-1; it was just the second time in 31 starts that Sandoval needed relief relieved.

Quirke induced three straight groundouts in her first frame, then rewarded herself during the Raiders’ turn in the top of the fifth. With two outs and none on, Hannah Shimek reached on an infield single and promptly stole second base. Quirke chased her home by lining a double to left-center field, and Walker came up next with an RBI base-hit to right that tied the score at 3-3.

Back in the circle, Quirke shut down the Royals after their first batter got on in the fifth, and in the sixth she started an inning-ending, 1-6-3 double play off the bat of leadoff hitter Melanie Okazaki.

With two outs in the top of the seventh, Quirke worked a seven-pitch walk and got into scoring position on a wild pitch. On a 2-1 count, Walker then skipped the go-ahead single through the middle to put the Raiders on top.

The Royals went down in order in the bottom of the seventh. Shimek’s diving play at second turned into the second out, and a dribbler that Quirke handled herself triggered the celebration. She went to 7-1 with the win, pitching for the first time since April 27.

“Gabby has done a great job carrying us this whole season, but there wasn’t a hesitation when Hope starting timing her a little bit to put in Lauren,” Pistole said. “She’s been in a great place mentally, working really hard day in and day out. I was actually excited to give her a shot and she was nails.”

The Raiders — who were a win away from an appearance in last year’s national championship game — have a history with their first World Series opponent, Lindsey Wilson. The Blue Raiders were the host of SOU’s first Opening Round appearance in 2016 and knocked the Raiders out short of the final site.

SOU never looked back, until now.

Andy Atkinson / Ashland TidingsSOU’s Lauren Quirke chases down a foul ball for an out in the 3rd inning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune SOU’s Gabby Sandoval delivers in the 3rd inning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune SOU’s Lauren Quirke delivers in the 4th inning.
Andy Atkinson / Ashland TidingsSouthern Oregon University first baseman Tayler Walker celebrates after her RBI double in the seventh inning against Hope International on Wednesday.
Andy Atkinson / Ashland TidingsSouthern Oregon University first baseman Tayler Walker connects for an RBI double and what proved to be the game-winning hit in the Raiders' win over Hope International on Wednesday.
Andy Atkinson / Ashland TidingsSouthern Oregon University outfielder Tiana Brown connects for a hit during Wednesday's game against Hope International.
Andy Atkinson / Ashland TidingsSouthern Oregon second baseman Hannah Shimek reaches out to hit the ball in Wednesday's game against Hope International.
Andy Atkinson / Ashland TidingsSouthern Oregon third baseman Lauren Quirke slides across home plate to score a run during Wednesday's game against Hope International.