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SOU softball advances to NAIA title game

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Two days earlier, it was the top-ranked defending champions. On Monday night, it was the little empire with twice as many championships as any team in the country.

So, with one win separating Southern Oregon from its first NAIA Softball World Series title — who's next?

"At this point, no one here cares," fifth-year SOU head coach Jessica Pistole said. "We're just so freaking ready for it."

The fourth-ranked Raiders rose to the occasion for the third time in as many games at the Killian Sports Complex, checking off a 4-2 win over No. 3 Oklahoma City in a matchup of the tournament's last unbeaten teams. In keeping their perfect postseason alive, they gave themselves two shots at the championship starting Wednesday at 7 a.m. Pacific Time. Whichever of the three remaining teams comes out of the elimination bracket would have to defeat the Raiders in back-to-back games to deny them the title.

Coming off her four-hit shutout of No. 1 Science & Arts (Okla.), Raider pitcher Gabby Sandoval kept the nation's top run-producing lineup in check to earn her NAIA-leading 35th victory. First baseman Tayler Walker provided the pop, and her fifth-inning home run put an exclamation point on the new biggest win in team history.

At 51-7, the Raiders are one triumph away from establishing a new team wins record for the third consecutive season.

The latest was among the most hard-earned, requiring a mini fourth-inning rally to break a tie.

SOU staked Sandoval to a 2-0 lead in the first by stringing together three consecutive hits. Hannah Shimek lent the initial spark with an infield hit, before Lauren Quirke gapped an RBI triple to the opposite field — her extra-base hit in as many games— and Walker roped a run-scoring single to left.

The Stars (59-7) got both runs back in the fourth. Morgan McCallum's leadoff home run cut the lead in half, and a two-out throwing error erased it entirely by allowing Julianna Abeloe to score after her single.

The tie didn't last long. Paige Leeper and Olivia Mackey set the table with hits to put runner on first and third for Avery Morehead-Hutsell, whose groundout to short scored pinch-runner Mackenzie Evangelisti.

In the fifth, Walker blasted the first pitch she saw, an inside fast ball, over the fence in left field for her fifth home run. It was her second of the national tournament, and her 11th RBI of the postseason.

"That home run was icing on the cake," Pistole said. "Tayler's just not making moments bigger than they are. She's trusting all the cuts she takes, trusting her hands and it's showing when we need her to come through."

The rest was up to Sandoval, who needed 142 pitches— her highest total since March — for her 32nd complete game. The count was at 59 when she got out of a bases-loaded jam in the second. She escaped a second-and-third spot with a strikeout in the fourth. With runners on first and third and no outs in the sixth, she coaxed back-to-back popouts before Walker dug out Leeper's throw from shortstop for the third out.

The Stars averaged 8.1 runs per game when the night began. The first four hitters in their lineup— including Jaci Smith, the NAIA's leader in home runs (28) and RBI (117)— went a combined 0-for-15 against Sandoval.

"Gabby's such a fighter," Pistole said. "She doesn't let things like home runs get to her and it's fun to see her really compete and stay so composed.

"It was a grind. From start to finish, it felt like a fight. But Oklahoma City is really good and we expect that to be the case with every team here."

Science & Arts will play No. 8 Georgia Gwinnett in Tuesday's first game. The winner will face Oklahoma City for the right to play SOU in the championship series.

"The belief and the fight that we have— that mentality that this is our season and this is our tournament— that's carried us through those really tough moments and allowed us to get back up and fight harder," Pistole added. "We're ready to keep competing."

Andy Atkinson / Ashland TidingsSouthern Oregon third baseman Lauren Quirke had a pair of hits, drove in a run and scored another in the Raiders' win over Oklahoma City on Monday night.