The Raiders aren’t entering their second straight trip to the NAIA World Series with a we’re-just-happy-to-be here kind of feeling like might have been the case 12 months ago.
They’ve certainly made plenty of history along the way this season, including their most recent win, their school-record 47th of 2018, to even get the chance to make a return trip to Florida. But they’re not in the mood to have a second straight spot amongst the final 10 teams be what headlines their season.
Southern Oregon is in Florida to do damage.
And it starts today when SOU, the No. 6 seed at the NAIA World Series, faces third-seed Marian at 3 p.m. Pacific Time at Legends Way Ball Fields in Clermont, Florida.
“The mentality, honestly, is just focusing on the little things. We want to play every game (at the NAIA World Series) like it’s a game against Corban or OIT or Northwest Christian, any of the people that we play at home,” SOU junior designated hitter Rebecca Velasquez said. “Just do the same things over and over again — the quality at-bats, the quality reps, that’s all we want to do. That’s our game.”
Ever since Southern Oregon clinched the Cascade Conference’s regular-season title on the final weekend of April, the Raiders haven’t had to take their show on the road at all in the postseason.
They won the CCC Tournament on their home field in Ashland, then won the Southern Oregon Regional in the NAIA Opening Round just up the road at U.S. Cellular Community Park in Medford.
Now, after a marathon day that involved cross-country travel on Wednesday, SOU (47-13 overall) will try and replicate that success in Florida.
“I definitely think we can do it. We’ve been strong throughout the whole season, coming back from being down or in the late innings, we’ve done it every single time,” SOU freshman second baseman Hannah Shimek said. “I personally don’t feel like we’ve played our best ball. We still have our best yet to come, and I think it will show at nationals. We’ve been working every day out here to play that best ball.”
Shimek’s thoughts were echoed by her head coach, Jessica Pistole.
“We’re still talking about things this whole week of practice,” Pistole said. “It’s like the week before leading up to the Opening Round, and I absolutely think that we haven’t played our best games yet. We’re ready to play them this upcoming week in Florida.”
So, for a team that’s won 18 of its last 22 games and has done so in all different kinds of ways, what exactly does that entail?
“Just playing as a complete team and a complete family,” Shimek said. “Playing for every single one of our teammates.”
Pistole, the CCC Coach of the Year, says that it’s a good thing that her team is still striving for its very best level entering the NAIA World Series.
“I think once you think you’re at the place where you’ve arrived, there’s only one way to go from there,” Pistole said. “I don’t think we’ve tapped out yet. It is hopeful and it is optimistic to us coaches (to think that way) because I don’t want to have played our best games last weekend.”
Southern Oregon and Marian (50-5) — which was third nationally in the final poll of the regular season — have faced one another in the not-so-distant past.
In 2016, it was Marian that beat SOU 6-4 in the NAIA Opening Round in Columbia, Kentucky. The Knights’ starting pitcher that day, Breena Smith, was only a freshman and is once again amongst the leaders in ERA in the nation.
Smith, a junior right-hander, enters today’s tournament opener, with a pristine 0.91 ERA, allowing all of 22 earned runs in 165 innings this season.
In her three seasons at Marian, Smith has recorded ERAs of 1.23, 0.96 and 0.91.
“We have our charts from her (two years ago) and got to see her throw (at the NAIA World Series) last year,” Pistole said. “They’re a good team from top to bottom, I think, but I think we’re a good team top to bottom, so it will be a good, fun matchup. We’re just going to attack from the get-go.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the mindset the Raiders have in virtually every game.
Southern Oregon displayed that fast start mentality in each of its four NAIA Opening Round games, grabbing a first-inning lead on all four occasions.
And as much as the players like to say that, “SOU softball always does it the hard way,” there’s no other place they wanted to end their season than in Florida.
The only thing left to do is to see how long they’ll stay in the Sunshine State.
“We’re just more hungry,” Velasquez said. “The fact that we’ve accomplished so many things, whether it was last year or this year, this season is a new mindset. We want to bring the freshman into a good program, we want to show them what Florida is all about and we want to do a lot better every year, every game.”
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.