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Southern Oregon University junior infielder Paige Leeper will start the 2019 season at shortstop, replacing former All-American Kelsey Randall, a four-year starter for the Raiders.[PHOTO BY: LARRY STAUTH JR]

Raiders' opening weekend to provide quality competition

Heading down to Northern California for the opening weekend of the season is nothing new for the Southern Oregon University softball team.

Neither is the way the rest of SOU’s non-conference schedule is constructed.

This is how it was last season, in 2017 and beyond that as well.

The very first steps to the Raiders’ encore to their record-setting encore in 2018 is just about here. Come this weekend, No. 3-nationally ranked SOU — which won a school-record 51 games a year ago — will face a pair of opponents from Northern California in Menlo College and Simpson University in Redding, Calif., playing one game against the two schools on Saturday and Sunday.

“Our schedule feels like it’s pretty similar every year,” SOU head coach Jessica Pistole said. “We play tough teams in the preseason all four weeks of February on the road. They’re all tough, and our conference is all tough. I really prefer that over playing weak teams and then expecting to rise when it matters. I feel like that’s not how we train, so let’s compete consistently and every game is a championship game.”

The four games in Redding will be a stretch where the Raiders will be spending all of the next four weeks this month on the road in California.

It’s pretty much been the same type of deal ever since Pistole became head coach in 2015.

SOU, the reigning Cascade Conference regular-season and postseason tournament champions, will host SImpson in its home opener on Tuesday, Feb. 26, before Eastern Oregon comes to town three days later to begin conference play.

Both Menlo and Simpson are regular non-conference opponents for Southern Oregon, with the Raiders going a combined 7-1 against the two schools in their eight regular-season meetings.

SOU also faced Simpson, last season’s CalPac Conference regular-season champion, in the first game of the NAIA Opening Round played at U.S. Cellular Community Park in Medford. The Raiders, sparked by Harlee Donovan’s two-run home run all of three batters into the game, beat the Red Hawks 9-1 en route to capturing the regional title and making a second straight trip to the NAIA World Series.

Menlo — which went 29-22 and finished fourth in the Golden State Athletic Conference last year — was scheduled to open its 2019 season this afternoon against No. 10-ranked Oregon Tech, but those games have been postponed.

While the Raiders have six starting position players and their No. 1 starting pitcher back from last season’s team that finished 51-15, Saturday’s season opener will be the first time in two years where Pistole won’t be writing the names of a pair of All-Americans, Donovan and shortstop Kelsey Randall, on the lineup card.

Even with the graduation of the two of the best players to ever come through the program, Pistole likes the depth that is on this season’s squad.

“I’m looking forward to consistency top to bottom,” Pistole said. “I think that’s what this group is. It’s players with a lot of competing between positions. There’s a lot of different options with what we can do and if someone’s not starting, hey, they’re ready to jump in and pinch hit or go out and finish the game in the field. Any one of our five pitchers, I feel like they compliment each other very well, too. I think just consistency and the things that we’re working on is my expectation for this year.”

And it also helps that the some of the Raiders’ best players are still some of their youngest players, too.

“We have a ton of room to grow — and I think that’s the greatest part of it,” Pistole said. “We know out here that we haven’t had a rock-sold, top-to-bottom practice yet, and we’ve tapped in there and we’re shooting for gold with everything that we’re doing and we measure that at the end of every practice, too. We know there’s a ton of room to get better, and our three seniors are doing a fantastic job of leading this crew. There’s a lot of returning faces and maybe not all of the seniors were starters all of the time last year, but Reck (Rebecca Velasquez), Morgan (Jones) and Tiana (Brown) — who has really stepped up this year — and our other returns are just shooting for the same thing.

“I feel like we’ve tasted it, but we didn’t win it, and I think there’s a lot to be hungry and shoot for.”

If anything, these opening weeks will give a team with lofty expectations a quality barometer of where they’re at right out of the gate.

The tough non-conference schedule last season — one where SOU went 13-5 — paved the way for an impressive showing in CCC play and beyond.

And the Raiders are hoping that’s the same kind of situation this year as well.

“Nobody’s batted an eye and rankings ... none of that matters. We know what we’re here to do and I don’t think we’ve talked about it once,” Pistole said. “It doesn’t matter, quite honestly, and I love the support and the energy, but it really doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks — it matters how we get it done day-to-day here and how much we love and believe each other.”

Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.

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