Now for the games that count

By the time they take the field Tuesday against No. 4 Concordia, the Southern Oregon Raiders will have gone 23 straight days without a game.

But according to SOU head coach Kim Fritts rust shouldn't cost the Raiders in their Cascade Conference opener.

"I think right now I expect these kids are excited and ready to play," Fritts said. "I don't see rust there at all. I see them ready to go and get things going."

That theory will be squeezed immediately, as the Raiders' first game back will provide a major test and yet another measuring stick for a Southern Oregon team that's already played — and lost to — No. 1 California Baptist and No. 6 Concordia of Calif.

The twin bill, which was originally scheduled to be played today in Ashland, has been moved twice to beat the weather and now is slated to begin at 2 p.m. Tuesday in Portland.

The Cavaliers' batting lineup ranks third in the league and their pitching staff ranks second despite a tough preseason schedule that included a 2-1 win over that other Concordia team. SOU, in contrast, is batting .285 (fifth) with a 4.53 ERA (sixth), but was heating up at the plate before it entered the three-week hole in its schedule.

"Our conference is going to be tough — we're going to beat each other up," Fritts said. "When I talk to other coaches that have played teams from our conference they've talked about us being a strong conference this year. But, I'm not concerned about other teams. I'm concerned about what we do."

What Southern Oregon (3-8) does, so far, is feast on average pitching and turn every ground ball into an adventure. Sophomore infielder Rayna Okimoto ranks third in the conference in batting average (.486) and third in home runs (5), a breakout start which has helped the Raiders score six runs or more four times (that includes a 9-2 win over Davenport and a 12-11 loss to Holy Names).

On the flip side, the Raiders' defense ranks sixth (out of seven) in the conference, and nine of their 19 errors have been committed by freshmen middle infielders Sierra Anderson and Gia DiMaggio.

Clearly, the middle infield is a work in progress, but if Fritts is worried about that she's doing a good job hiding it. With a roster short on experience — 12 of 22 Raiders are underclassmen, including six freshmen — growing pains were expected, she insists. Besides, Fritts adds, SOU's young guns have had nearly a month to work out the kinks.

"We're a young team — we're going to make some mistakes," she said. "They're getting better every day. I'm not concerned, really. Mentally, we need to just stay focused and play our game."

On the mound, Fritts says the Raiders will continue to use all five of their pitchers, though three have stood out. Senior Karri Johnson has the lowest ERA on the team (2.75) and the most strikeouts (17) in 201/3 innings of work, while sophomore Jessica Flores has been a bit of a surprise, carrying a 2.92 ERA in 12 innings. Freshman Karlie Stephens is also pitching well (3.73 ERA, 15 innings).

Junior Jordyn Kurtz has yet to regain the form (6.30 ERA so far) that made her SOU's go-to pitcher prior to a knee injury early last season, but leads the team with 231/3 innings pitched.

"I don't know if we have one or two (aces)," Fritts said. "I'm going to utilize my entire pitching staff. I have five of them and I'm going to use them."

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