When Jessica Pistole and her team of Southern Oregon Raiders celebrated a return trip to the NAIA World Series two weeks ago, she knew that two things were going to be true.
Her team was going to end its season exactly where it wanted to — in Florida.
And she knew that her team was going to leave everything it had left in the tank to try and bring a national title back to Ashland.
After a week in the Sunshine State, the Raiders aren’t coming home with the biggest prize in NAIA softball.
But there’s no denying that after SOU’s 6-2 loss to Columbia College (Mo.), as the local time in Clermont, Fla., approached 3 a.m., the Raiders had given every single ounce of energy they had left in an attempt to extend their season another couple of hours.
That was after their first game of the day, a 3-2 win over two-time defending national champion Oklahoma City, ended just after midnight Eastern Time because of what proved to be a 12-hour weather delay.
What were you doing just after midnight?
What were you doing just before 3 a.m.?
I’m guessing the common answer is sleeping.
The Raiders were playing softball.
And all along the way, they did it their way, too.
The unofficial slogan over this postseason run might have been how SOU softball doesn’t always take the easiest route to get to its final destination.
The NAIA World Series was proof of that.
The Raiders — who finished this season with a school-record 51 wins — lost their tournament opener to Marian last Friday, and thus were sent to the elimination bracket to fight for their season every time they took the field.
Fight they did.
Every one of SOU’s last five games could have been the final chapter in the career of two of the best players the Raiders have ever seen wear their jersey, shortstop Kelsey Randall and catcher Harlee Donovan.
That is what the elimination bracket means — you don’t know if there’s a tomorrow until you take care of your business in the present day.
SOU won four straight games in the elimination bracket. The Raiders dispatched of the same team that beat them on the first day of the tournament, Marian (Ind.). They ousted the aforementioned reigning national champion in the first game of a marathon night at Legends Way Ballfields.
They fell behind early in games and then rallied late, most notably in Saturday’s 5-3 win over Mobile (Ala.) where they scored three seventh-inning runs to take the lead once and for all.
They won nail-biters aplenty, reminding us all that SOU plays some of its best ball when its facing the toughest of pressure-packed situations.
Frank Sinatra did it his way.
SOU softball did it their way.
In January, the Raiders were ranked third in the nation, the highest ranking the program has ever gotten.
On the second-to-last day of the season, they were one of three teams left standing.
Call it just a sheer coincidence or something else, but Southern Oregon has more than just a good chance to be ranked exactly where it was before the season started.
The bar has been set incredibly high with what this team has accomplished the last two seasons.
They’ve won a combined 97 games and over 75 percent of the games they’ve played.
They backed up last season’s trip to the NAIA World Series with another one, while winning the Cascade Conference regular-season and tournament title along the way.
And now that SOU has gotten closer and closer to a national championship the last two years at the NAIA World Series, there’s no surprise that come next January — or even in a few months when fall ball begins — the goal is to get back there.
That’s how it was when I first met this team in January.
That’s most certainly how it’s going to be no matter what the year is going forward.
Replacing Randall and Donovan, who both seem like virtual locks to be All-Americans this year, is going to be no easy task. That’s pretty much as obvious as obvious gets.
But doing it the hard way has proven to be SOU softball’s way. They had all but two starters to replace from last season’s team that made it to the NAIA World Series for the first time in program history, and look where they ended up 12 months later.
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.