ASHLAND — The 2017 season proved to be a trip to uncharted territory for the Southern Oregon University softball team.
As the Raiders look to build off their first-ever trip to the NAIA World Series a year ago, one might be asking themselves, "What can they do for an encore?"
If it's up to them to try and replicate exactly what they did a year ago — and then some.
"I would say our goal is to win conference, to win our tournament, to win our opening-round game and get back and win the national title," SOU head coach Jessica Pistole said. "I think that we're a perfectly capable team, and going back to last year and seeing what that was like and how we competed there that it should be our goal ever year."
The Raiders' end-goal is an obvious one based on how close they got last May. And after last year's success, it's pretty easy to understand why.
They know what it's like to finally get to the national tournament, and they don't want it to be just a one-time deal.
"I'd say that experience was pretty amazing. I definitely didn't go into the season with the expectation of that. Even though I wanted it, I wasn't sure," SOU senior catcher Harlee Donovan said. "The experience was unreal and then to compete there was even more special. I think just going through it proved that we are capable and we are one of the best teams in this nation. So, coming off of that, we do have high expectations and we're going to get back there. We just know that we can do it because with the competition that we had, it just showed that we could have won that thing."
SOU not only enters the 2018 campaign with a preseason ranking of No. 3 in the nation — the highest ranking it has ever gotten nationally — but the Raiders were also picked to win the Cascade Collegiate Conference, just edging out Corban University.
For some, that kind of ranking might come with pressure.
For the Raiders, they're just taking the lofty preseason ranking in stride.
"I think it's awesome getting the recognition — especially for the hard work we put in — but I don't think it changes much," SOU senior shortstop Kelsey Randall said. "We still practice like you're No. 2, play like you're No. 1."
While the Raiders are looking to replace six position players in the starting lineup from last season's team that went 46-15 — including all three starting outfielders — they return two of their top hitters in Donovan and Randall, an All-American selection in 2015 and 2017.
Randall finished third in the conference with a .431 batting average and led the CCC with 94 hits. Donovan tied the single-season school record for home runs with 11 in her first season with the Raiders after transferring from San Mateo Junior College.
SOU also returns two of its top pitchers from a year ago, Karlee Coughlin and Gabby Sandoval. Both just sophomores, Coughlin and Sandoval combined to throw close to 300 innings a season ago and accounted for 33 of the Raiders' 46 wins.
Coughlin (19-3, 2.32 ERA), a first-team all-conference selection in 2017, recorded nearly half of SOU's 31 complete-game efforts in the circle, while Sandoval (14-7, 3.06) led the team in both appearances (34) and strikeouts (95) in 144 1/3 innings pitched.
Even with a lot to replace, the Raiders are most certainly confident in what they have.
"I love the chemistry of this team. We mesh super well. It's awesome to be around everyone, and it's always a good time." Randall said. "I think physically, everybody is right there, so that's not really the worry. It's just showing (the younger players) how we do things here, how SOU softball just gets stuff done and how to do it the right way, that's where we're leading by example and showing them down the right path."
"We have a very strong senior class and they lead by example, they lead by determination and grit and competitiveness," Pistole said. "The team respects that and, at least to this point, they've risen to the occasion of the level that their seniors expect them to play at."
Southern Oregon begins its season this Friday in California against William Jessup and 18th-ranked Simpson. It's the start of a stretch where the Raiders play their first 18 games away from home.
"Once we’re finally home and going into conference, we’re relaxed and we’ve found or rhythm as a team," Donovan said. "The scramble of being on the road and learning who we are as a team, learning who we’re playing next to in game situations, I think will prepare us well and we’ll be ready."
Playing their first month's worth of games on the road is nothing new to this crew. And if it pays dividends down the road like it did a season ago, it will be the start of something special again.
"I think any time you're in the top teams you have a target on your back. That's just a fact of how athletics work," Pistole said. "I feel like, really, our goals don't change, the way we prepare won't change and we know our conference is strong. So if we're capable of winning our conference, winning our tournament, we're capable of winning it all."
Danny Penza is the sports editor for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-776-4483 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.