Raiders make a statement

Still folded over the waist-high fence that separates the field of play from the Raiders' dugout, Southern Oregon first baseman Melissa Corn, clutching the ball after a spectacular catch, let out a primordial scream.

Translation: the Raiders, for now, aren't going anywhere.

Four days after Concordia came to town and pushed SOU to the brink playoff afterthought, the Raiders bounced back in the best way possible Tuesday, sweeping No. 17 Oregon Tech behind two vintage outings by Jordyn Kurtz, clutch hitting and a nearly flawless performance by their fast-improving defense. The wins at University Field — 3-2 in Game 1 and 3-1 in Game 2 — give the Raiders two more big reasons to believe in their postseason dream of qualifying for the NAIA National Championships and puts their foot back in the ever revolving Cascade Conference playoff door.

"It's a great feeling to know that we swept No. 1," Corn said. "This is going to give us momentum. This is going to give us the push we need to finish the season."

With two weeks to go in the regular season only two wins separate the second- through fourth-place teams in the CCC standings. Oregon Tech (27-8, 13-3 CCC) still holds a two-game lead over second-place College of Idaho (11-5), Corban (12-6) is all alone at third and SOU (12-15, 9-7 CCC) and Concordia are tied for fourth. Only the top three teams qualify for the Cascade Conference postseason tournament.

Neither win came easy against the previously red-hot Owls, who entered the day riding an 11-game winning streak, including a sweep of the Raiders just last week. Southern Oregon rallied to take the opener, falling behind 2-0 before coming back to win on Rayna Okimoto's RBI single up the middle with two outs in the seventh.

Kurtz, whose sixth-inning homer tied that game, then held Oregon Tech's highly-touted offense to one run on five hits in the second game, plenty good enough to secure SOU's most significant sweep of the season.

Kurtz started and finished both games, a departure from head coach Kim Fritts' usual strategy of sitting SOU's hard-throwing right-hander for the second game of doubleheaders. The decision was made between games, after Kurtz held the Owls, whose .324 team batting average easily leads the conference, to two runs on five hits after striking out six with a walk.

"We had a little bit of a thought in the head to see how she was doing, how Game 1 went to make that final decision," Fritts said. "When she did well and she wasn't tired, we made that call to go with her. We had the momentum, so we were going to keep it going."

Oregon Tech drew first blood in the opener when Ashleigh Larson ripped a two-run single to center. The play looked like a bad omen for the home team, especially after Jess Plummer followed with a double, putting runners at second and third with one out. But Kurtz retired the next two batters to stop the bleeding, and frustrated the Owls the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, SOU crept back in the game one timely hit at a time. First, in the fourth inning, Julia Willison singled home Kurtz, who belted a one-out double to create the threat. Then, in the sixth, Kurtz crushed Jackie Imhof's offering over the wall in center.

Imhof, who fell to 13-4, struck out six with a walk in 62/3 innings.

The bomb was Kurtz's first home run of the season.

"It was a long time coming," she said. "She threw that change-up and I sat back. Being a pitcher I kind of expected it in that count and that situation."

SOU catcher Emily Matekel roped a single to left to start the Raiders' game-winning rally in the seventh. She moved to second on Sarah Wharton's sacrifice bunt, and one out later pinch runner Mischa Meyer scored on Okimoto's punch up the middle. Meyer slid into home far ahead of the throw, catapulting the Raiders into Game 2 on an emotional high.

"I thought she was going to come with either a change-up or a riser, and she came with the change-up," Okimoto said.

Southern Oregon didn't let up in the nightcap, thanks mostly to Kurtz, but also another solid effort by the Raider defense, which committed one error on the day. Corn made two great grabs, including a sliding basket catch that help squash Oregon Tech's only rally in the fifth, and each of SOU's outfielders — Kathryn Moy in left, Brooke Springer in center and Wharton in right — came through with tough running grabs to help keep the Raiders in front.

SOU's offense did its part against Oregon Tech starting pitcher Taylor Schmidt. In the third, Moy tripled to deep right and scored when Springer beat out an infield single, capping a two-out rally.

The Raiders made it 3-0 in the fourth, when Corn tomahawked an RBI double off the wall in left then scored — barely, without a slide — on Wharton's 4-3 ground out.

"I was just thinking that I needed to trust my hands and stay calm," Corn said of her double. "When it was off my bat, I felt it. "… it was close (to a home run), but I can't get lucky every time."

The rest came down to defense, and the Raiders played just enough of it. Their first and only error of the day was a big one — Okimoto inexplicably threw to second in an attempt to get OIT's lead runner in the fifth, but her throw was way late and way wide, giving the Owls a run and momentum. But Corn's second dramatic play of the day — her first came in the fourth — followed, and Oregon Tech's Brittany Cherry grounded out to second to end the inning.

Oregon Tech made one final push in the seventh. Taylor Schmidt and Kayde Schaefer both singled, and advanced to second and third on a ground out. But Kurtz once again buckled down, striking out Cherry with a 2-2 fastball.

The road doesn't get any easier for the Raiders. They host College of Idaho in another crucial twin bill on Friday, host Eastern Oregon on Saturday, then hit the road for their final four league games, including an April 23 showdown with Corban.

"This was pretty important," Okimoto said, "because they're the No. 1 team and we needed these wins. And we got them because we wanted them. Our intensity was up from the beginning."

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