They struggled, then they got hot. Then they struggled again.
Now, the up-and-down Southern Oregon University Raiders are hoping that their pattern continues with a hot streak that will coincide with the Cascade Conference softball tournament today and Friday at the OIT Softball Complex in Klamath Falls.
The fourth-seeded Raiders (15-21, 14-14 CCC) will take on the top-seeded and 17th-ranked Oregon Tech Owls in the first round of the double-elimination, four-team tournament today at 11:30 p.m., with the winner slated to play either second-seeded and 24th-ranked Concordia or third-seeded College of Idaho at 2 p.m. The losers will play an elimination game at 4:30 p.m.
The conference tourney champion will be determined Friday, with the winner earning an automatic bid to the 40-team NAIA Championships.
"Our goal all season is to win every pitch when we're at the plate, to be in it with every batter," SOU head coach Kim Fritts said. "We're just going to take it one pitch at a time and keep going through."
Southern Oregon chugged its way through a roller coaster season, backing into the playoffs despite losing nine of its last 12 games. The Raiders lost seven of their first eight games, but the lone win came Feb. 2 against No. 1-ranked Concordia (Calif.). Then league play began, and SOU won seven of its first eight CCC games to become a surprise contender. That didn't last, but a key road sweep of Northwest on April 25 helped the Raiders lock up their first playoff berth since 2010.
Now, SOU faces a hot Oregon Tech team that's won six of its last seven, including a sweep of Southern Oregon on April 21.
"We're definitely capable of competing with any team in our conference and facing OIT, we're just going to go in and play like we have been," Fritts said. "They were close games (during the regular season) and it was just one or two timely hits that (determined) those games."
Oregon Tech (32-10, 23-5) swept the four-game season series, winning 8-0 and 4-3 in Klamath Falls and 7-3 and 3-1 in Ashland on March 24. Fritts expects the Owls to start Jessi Duncan in the circle today, while the Raiders will probably go with redshirt freshman Brianne Craig.
Duncan ranked second in the conference in ERA (2.65) and third in wins (15-4) during the regular season. She held the Raiders scoreless on three hits on April 21, a six-inning affair, and to three runs, one earned, on six hits on March 24.
If Duncan struggles, the Owls can go to Rylee Carleton (3.58 ERA) or Cassidy Olson (4.64 ERA).
Craig ranked seventh in the conference in ERA (3.86) and held the Owls to one earned run on four hits in 41/3 innings on April 21. In that game, SOU led 2-1 heading into the bottom of the sixth before OIT scored two in its half of the sixth then held on for the victory.
Fritts says that this time, the Raiders will be ready for Duncan.
"We kind of did our homework and figured out some things that might help us," she said. "I think the main thing for us going in is being aggressive at the plate. When we were winning consistently we were aggressive at the plate. We went after good pitches early in the count and we were successful at that.
"We need to go in and play our game, it doesn't matter who our opponent is. It just matters what we do with our bats and then how we react on defense."
The Raiders' offense is led by catcher Julia Willison, first baseman Megan Scherer and third baseman Ashley Lowe. Willison is batting .384 with 12 extra-base hits and 21 RBIs, Scherer is batting .357 with 16 RBIs and Lowe is batting .330 with 17 RBIs.
For Oregon Tech, Shauna Collins is batting .395 with three home runs and 21 RBIs, and Danielle Sayres .393.
In other head-to-head battles, SOU split its four-game season series with College of Idaho and was swept by Concordia.
"I will tell you this," Fritts said, "with this team in particular, we're short on numbers, but when this team puts its mind to it and plays together they can achieve anything they want to."
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or firstname.lastname@example.org.