ASHLAND — The arrival of the middle of April means that the games on the college softball schedule take on just that much more importance.
That is most certainly the case in Ashland this weekend.
Of the four teams that are in contention for the Cascade Conference title, two of them will be playing at University Field over the next two days, as the No. 9-ranked Southern Oregon hosts arch-rival and No. 22 Oregon Tech for a pair of doubleheaders, starting with today’s 2 p.m. series opener.
The Raiders (32- 9 overall, 15-3 CCC), who moved up five spots in the national rankings this week, have won their last five games since splitting a doubleheader against another one of those teams in the mix for the conference title, Corban University (23-8, 13-3), two weeks ago.
Today’s series opener also marks a stretch where SOU will face teams with winning records in the final three weeks of the season, including third-place Eastern Oregon (19-11, 13-4) in La Grande to close out the regular season.
“I think we’re going to have to pounce just like what we did against Corban and really all the teams we’ve faced in big games,” SOU senior catcher Harlee Donovan said. “We’re just going to have to do what we do and stay calm and know that we can get the job done.”
The Raiders may be charging toward a second straight season with over 40 wins, but at one point early on they were just one game above the .500 mark.
Then the bats got hot and, with three weeks to go in the regular season, SOU finds itself atop the CCC standings and not too far away from the No. 3 preseason ranking the Raiders received in January.
“From the beginning, it’s really about this being our journey,” SOU head coach Jessica Pistole said. “We had some rough patches early on and knew that we’d be working through just a new group of people and the hurdles that come with getting on the same page. We’re getting better, still, every day and every week, and that’s what I want to see from them from the start until the finish.
“We’re not as good as we’re going to be yet, and that’s where I’m pleased because this is a team that works hard and is going to keep pushing to get better.”
SOU’s offense has been the team’s driving force all season long.
The Raiders lead the conference in both batting average (.346), runs (291) and runs per game (7.10). All three of those numbers rank highly nationally, with Southern Oregon’s total run figure ranking the Raiders fifth in the country.
“I think we’re phenomenal and it’s so awesome when we start to mix in our power hitters with our slappers, our speed and our bunting and short game,” Donovan said. “I think we just have it all. When we start to put it all together, it just creates havoc for the other team.”
But in Oregon Tech (25-9, 13-5), Southern Oregon will be matched up against the CCC’s top pitching staff, one that is both talented and deep.
The Owls’ team ERA of 2.15 is the best in the CCC and ranked 20th nationally, while they also lead the conference in strikeouts.
“They have a good pitching staff and attack with good throwers that can locate,” Pistole said of Oregon Tech. “They’re going to have aggressive swingers that have power. We need to be on our game from the circle and be able to hit our spots, hopefully attack weaknesses and attack with our strengths, too.”
The Raiders’ pitching staff, one that has the second-most shutouts in the CCC (8), has proven to be a solid compliment to SOU’s high-scoring offense. Led by sophomore right-hander Gabby Sandoval, who leads the CCC in wins with 16, the Raiders are ranked fourth in the conference with a 2.69 team ERA.
Sandoval has a 1.52 ERA and 29 strikeouts in her last seven starts, a span of 41 1/3 innings.
“It’s just about doing their job, hitting their spots and working hard in the middle of the week and translating that to on the field and live stuff,” Pistole said of her pitching staff. “They’re very hard working, our pitching staff, and they do compliment each other, so it helps. They have the mindset that they’re going to pick up the person they’re going in for in the middle of the game. Just doing the little things is what they’ve continued to buy in to and do. I’m happy that while our offense is scoring more runs than we’re giving up, for the most part that’s the goal, right?”
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.