To Jessica Pistole, Southern Oregon’s historic run to the NAIA Softball World Series was thrilling, exhausting and memorable. And, the Raiders’ head coach added, it was also something else: proof.
“Yeah, this year’s team was the best we’ve ever seen in terms of the records and all that,” she said. “But each year we’ve taken one more step toward being the best that we can be at this level and, honestly, this was definitely the year when we got to taste what we’re going after. And we’re not that far off.”
Riding a three-headed pitching monster made up entirely of underclassmen, air-tight defense and clutch hitting, the Raiders won the Cascade Conference tournament then clawed their way out of a four-team pod in Hattiesburg, Mississippi to reach the World Series for the first time in program history.
There, the eighth-seeded and 20th-ranked Raiders rallied from a 3-0 deficit in the fifth inning to beat ninth-seeded Indiana Wesleyan in the first round, 4-3, lost to top-ranked (and eventual national champion) Oklahoma City, beat Warner 4-3 in one of the most exciting games of the tournament, and bowed out with a 5-2 loss to second-seeded Columbia on Tuesday.
The accolades poured in along the way for the Raiders, who finished 46-15 to set a program record for wins in a season. Five Raiders earned Cascade Conference all-star recognition, including first-teamers Kelsey Randall, Harlee Donovan and Karlee Coughlin, senior outfielder Aaliyah Oliver made the All-World Series team and on Friday Randall was named an All-American honorable mention.
“I thought we could play with every team there,” said Randall, a junior shortstop who led the Raiders in batting average (.431), on base percentage (.485), and triples (10) and was one of four Raiders to start all 61 games. “They’re all definitely going to be hard games because everyone made it to the same spot so we all have this potential, but definitely we could compete with any team there.”
Southern Oregon entered the postseason on a low note after splitting a four-game set with Eastern Oregon, but the Raiders forgot about that in time to steamroll through the Cascade Conference tournament, beating 15th-ranked Corban twice to claim its first CCC tournament title.
That earned the Raiders an automatic bid to the national tournament and a trip to Mississippi for the Hattiesburg pod, where SOU suffered a 1-0 loss to 22nd-ranked Southeastern on the opening day. Teams that lose in the opening round in four-team, double-elimination tournaments rarely battle their way out of the loser’s bracket to a tourney title, but SOU managed to pull it off thanks to lights-out pitching by Coughlin (a freshman), Gabby Sandoval (freshman) and Victoria Mackey (sophomore) and timely hitting.
Coughlin and Sandoval combined to allow one run on five hits in the first game of the championship round against Southeastern — barely good enough, as it turned out, to support a 2-1 SOU victory — and Donovan and Kayleen Smith combined for five hits and three RBIs in the winner-take-all game, which the Raiders won 6-2.
The World Series, played at Legends Way Ball Fields in Clermont, Florida, proved to be just as exciting for the Raiders.
Down 3-1 in the sixth to Indiana Wesleyan, Oliver and Smith both delivered key RBI singles to help the Raiders pull off another postseason comeback and earn a date with Oklahoma City, the defending national champion. The Stars were as good as advertised, both against the Raiders and everybody else in Clermont. After riding ace Georgia Wall to a 4-0 win over SOU, Oklahoma City won its next three games to claim its second straight national title, beating Corban in the final, and Wall was name the World Series MVP.
“I thought that the difference was our hitting,” said Randall, one of two Raiders to get a hit off Wall (Tyler Burke was 2-for-3). “(Wall) definitely was a great pitcher, but I do think that something to work on next year is just staying consistent with hitting. It was a really close game, and if you look at (the Stars’) record throughout the year that wasn’t a normal thing for them. That kind of proves to us that we can play with any team, and if we see them again I’m sure it’ll be a different story.”
SOU’s first loser-out game against Warner was one of the tournament’s gems and provided Pistole her two favorite on-the-field moments — Donovan’s bases-loaded triple just inside the right-field line in the third, and Oliver’s perfect throw from center field to cut down the would-be game-tying run in the bottom of the seventh.
“Oliver’s throw in that Warner game from center field to Harlee …to keep us ahead, that was just phenomenal,” Pistole said. “That was huge, and (Donovan) comes up in the clutch with the bases-clearing triple — it was nice to be able to get the big hit when we needed it.”
As far as off-the-field highlights, Pistole said the team’s kayak ride through an alligator-infested river was “just unreal” — her daughter sat in the front seat — and she also enjoyed a trip to the beach and a dinner at a Disney resort.
Did SOU’s run raise the bar for the program? Randall says yes, and no.
“I think you can say that,” she said, “but for me, my bar has always been the national tournament and the national championship. That’s always been kind of what we work for and I know that this is the first time in program history but I think we’re going to prepare the same way because we know what it takes. I will say it brings higher hopes for next year because we will be back and this shows that this is what we expect from our program.”
“The teams at the World Series were pretty even and it’s just a matter of how consistently you play there at the end,” she said. “Oklahoma City was really talented and strong, so to beat them it had to be our best game on our best day. But (the tournament) really brought clarity. It isn’t a lofty idea anymore. We are chasing a national title.”
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.