The last two years has seen the Southern Oregon University softball team one-up the previous season’s record-setting accomplishments.
The Raiders had their best-ever season and advanced to the NAIA World Series for the first time in school history in 2017, then went out and won 51 games and finished third at the national tournament last spring.
This spring brings the same expectations simply because, at this point, the bar has been raised nearly as high as it possibly can.
“Our motto this year is ‘Natty is now,’ and that basically means that everything we do now is natty, every little thing we do is toward natty and nothing is going to get in our way,” SOU sophomore second baseman Hannah Shimek said. “We got third last year and that’s not good enough. That’s in the past now and we’re trying to forget about that and do better this year.”
“Natty” isn’t one of the Raiders’ talented returners or a much-anticipated recruit.
“Natty” is what the No. 3-ranked Raiders, who open the season on Saturday against Menlo College in Redding, Calif., came oh-so-close to playing for last season — a national title.
“It’s definitely safe to say that the natty is what we’re striving for in 2019,” SOU sophomore outfielder Olivia Mackey said. “But we do take it day by day. We’re practicing for it, but we’re practicing for each and every game and we’re going to focus on the next game.”
“We’re just taking it day by day and working really hard on and off the field,” SOU junior right-hander Gabby Sandoval said. “I think our mental state is a huge key for this year, and we’re working on that as well. I think we’re going to be really good.”
A season after replacing the majority of its starting lineup, Southern Oregon will now look to replace the production of its two stars from a 2018 squad that won the Cascade Conference’s regular-season and tournament title on its way to a second straight national tourney appearance.
All-American shortstop Kelsey Randall, the Raiders’ spark atop the lineup the last four years, has graduated. All-American catcher Harlee Donovan, last season’s NAIA Player of the Year, has graduated and is now an assistant coach for the Raiders.
But when SOU head coach Jessica Pistole, the CCC’s Coach of the Year in 2018, looks around the diamond this season, she will see a whole lot of familiar faces from last season’s team.
The right side of the infield, Shimek and first baseman Tayler Walker, are still just sophomores after earning all-conference honors in 2018.
The Raiders’ designated hitter, Rebecca Velasquez, is back for her senior season after hitting .327 and driving in 34 runs, the fourth-most on the team behind Donovan, Shimek and Randall.
All three starting outfielders — Avery Morehead-Hutsell, Hannah Wessel and Mackey — are back after quickly developing into one of the best defensive units in the conference.
The Raiders’ ace in the circle, Sandoval, is coming off a 2018 season where she recorded a 2.07 ERA in 48 appearances (32 starts) spanning 206 2/3 innings.
With so many starters back from the 2018 squad, the task of replacing two of the program’s best-ever players may be a little easier to cope with.
And it’s not like just because Randall and Donovan aren’t around means the Raiders are lowering their expectations.
“Our returners and the core group, the expectation for them is higher and it really just feels like it’s normal and how we operate here,” Pistole said. “I think what we’re shooting for is consistency, not getting too high or too low and just really working the same things we’ve worked the entire time.
“The pulse of that returning group is very, very strong because they’ve tasted it, they’ve been there and know what it takes. They’re committed to the daily grind and I think that makes all the difference in the world. Yes, we have two very big shoes to fill, but we have a good group of incoming players and some other returners stepping up.”
Junior Page Leeper, an Eagle Point High School grad who hit .321 in 56 at-bats as a sophomore season, is slated to begin the season as the Raiders’ starting shortstop. Behind the plate, junior college transfer Allie Stines — who had a team-best .465 batting average in 45 games at College of San Mateo last year — will be the one to try and fill Donovan’s void.
It’s something that’s not a foreign concept to the left-handed hitting — and throwing — Stines, who replaced Donovan at CSM after the latter transferred to SOU before the 2017 season.
“It’s definitely hard to try and replace them, but each and every person on this team is capable of doing everything right,” Mackey said. “We are stacked that we just have the best field to be placed.”
No matter the names on the lineup card, Pistole will always be about the process of building toward the biggest goal her team has.
It’s about gradual improvement rather than instant gratification.
It’s a recipe that has continued to work in a program that has gone from 33 wins in 2015 to 51 a season ago.
And, don’t forget the talk about the natty.
“I don’t think the mindset is any different and it’s the same in terms of working our hardest to be the best in those moments. I think the expectation, for us, is that we’re going to compete to be the best and we need to expect to be ranked there, expect to have other people expect,” Pistole said. “It’s not pressure, but more of ‘Alright, this is what we’ve been working for, this is who we are, so let’s get it done.’”
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.