SOU's big stick

Rayna Okimoto stirs in bed. With that groggy, half-awake half-still-sleeping feeling, she checks her alarm clock. Hoping that she might be wrong she consults the numbers.

She isn't.

The clock reminds her that it's 5 o'clock Wednesday morning, and that means early-morning weight lifting for the Southern Oregon University softball team. After the wake up workout, the sophomore slugger will head off to study hall, class and practice before thinking about getting home.

But first she'll lay in bed, warm and toasty, for another 15 minutes floating in the dreamy depths of awakening abruptly. Then it's time to get to work.

The Raiders (3-8) are getting ready to kick off the 2011 Cascade Conference season and Okimoto, 19, worked the entire year for this.

Though she leads SOU in home runs (5) and RBIs (11) and sports a blistering batting average (.486), Okimoto says she never expected these types of numbers.

"I just wanted to do what I do, ya know?" she says in deference. After all, she just focuses on putting the bat on the ball where she is supposed to, and the ball just seems to do the rest.

Third-year head coach Kim Fritts sees it a little bit differently.

"This off season our pitchers challenged her," says Fritts. "They really picked on her weaknesses and it has paid off."

The hard work Okimoto and the Raiders put in has coupled with Fritts eternally high-expectations and created a lot of confidence in the Rogue Valley this spring.

Fritts has repeatedly said she fully expects this team to win the conference championship and qualify for the NAIA national tournament.

For that to happen, the young, talented Raiders must learn to play complete games, put together the whole package and continue to go to work.

After the early morning weight-session Okimoto attends mandatory study hall with other softball players. This winter she took biology, computer science, art history and photography. Usually there is someone in study hall who is taking or has taken a class you might need help with and today is no different.

The players help each other with homework. Assistant coach Christie Hill wants to teach and is always present at study hall to help, Okimoto says.

When most students are waking up Okimoto heads to her first class at 9 a.m. Besides small breaks for breakfast and lunch Okimoto stays on campus and in class until 2 p.m. before heading off to softball practice.

Because SOU offers many late-afternoon courses the softball team splits into two practice sessions. With the flexibility in practice all players are able to attend, but they rarely get to practice all together. Add in the rainy weather that forces the team to practice in the small gymnasium at McNeal Pavilion and its obvious how much focus is required to have a good practice. There isn't a whole lot of time for adjustment or half-efforts.

Though the SOU team works hard it still remembers how to have fun.

Fritts keeps practices light when necessary, constantly pushing the kids to have fun and enjoy the game they play.

"The season is a journey and you need to enjoy it to try and keep people motivated," said Fritts.

If a team is getting beat every game, you've got to find the fun in getting back in on winning. If a team is winning all the time, you have to find the fun in keeping that going. Make sure you find the fun.

Finding the fun isn't just about being on the field, though. For the Raiders it's an attitude that pervades their team chemistry.

With six seniors riding into the sunset of their careers, the young faces of SOU are pushing equally hard to not let them down and send them off with a Cascade Conference championship and maybe even more.

"After college you're really done," said Okimoto. Unlike baseball, the sport isn't really a springboard into a career. "For us it's the end of the road after college."

So everyone on the team plays with everything they have. They fight for every position and minute of playing time, and teams fight for every victory they can earn.

But as Okimoto goes home for the evening the fighting is over for now. It's time to find the fun with her roommates: sophomores Irene Barrantes and Jade Martinez.

Okimoto will pick up her ukulele while Barrantes and Martinez sing along in a roommate "jam session." They will play into the night, not worried about waking up early in the morning, knowing wake up workouts are for Wednesdays only.

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