MEDFORD — One of the Southern Oregon University softball team’s biggest strengths throughout the 2018 season has been its ability to not get fazed no matter the situation.
There was no better example of that than what relief pitcher Morgan Jones did on Tuesday.
Coming into a bases-loaded jam with the potential game-tying run standing on third, Jones kept a lead intact and then proceeded to get the final three outs of the game to preserve top-seeded Southern Oregon’s 3-2 win over Northwestern College (Iowa) in an NAIA Opening Round winner’s bracket game at U.S. Cellular Community Park.
“When it’s my turn, it’s my turn. I’m always ready when the coaches tell me it’s my turn and I’m like, ‘Alright, let’s go do this,’” Jones said. “I really like pressure situations and I’ve always kind of stood out in those. My defense behind me was the main reason we got out of that (sixth) inning.
“I was just trying to keep my composure and be as calm as can be just so I could get out of that inning and do it for my team.”
With the win, Southern Oregon booked its ticket into today’s regional final that gets underway at 11 a.m. in Medford. The Raiders (46-12 overall) will face second-seeded St. Francis (Ill.) (40-8), which beat Northwestern 5-2 in 11 innings in Tuesday’s second and final elimination game.
With one more victory, SOU will achieve one of its biggest preseason goals — making it back to the NAIA World Series.
“It comes down to composure — and we all have it,” SOU second baseman Hannah Shimek said. “No one is ever phased, and that’s the biggest thing that this team has is composure.”
Jones ended up being the third pitcher of the inning used by SOU head coach Jessica Pistole, as both starting pitcher Gabby Sandoval and the Raiders’ first reliever in the sixth, Allie Hancock, each got one out before being replaced.
Northwestern loaded the bases with nobody out on a walk, a single and then what appeared to be a simple foul ball before catcher’s interference was called. Sandoval hit third baseman Cheyenne Wilcke with a pitch to bring home NWC’s first run of the game, cutting SOU’s lead to 3-1.
Then things got more than just a little interesting.
Hancock replaced Sandoval and then proceeded get a huge strikeout before walking the No. 9 hitter, first baseman Katie Elliot, to cut SOU’s lead to 3-2.
Enter Jones, who immediately put out the fire on a comebacker to the circle to get out of the sixth.
“We just needed a pitcher who let them put the ball in play, and that’s one of Morgan’s strengths,” Pistole said. “Allie’s been ready to go and she had a huge strikeout with the bases loaded, but we work defense so much that we need to be able to trust them. I just wanted someone who could put the ball in play and Morgan closed it out.”
Jones retired Northwestern 1-2-3 in the seventh to finish off her third — and easily most important — save of the season.
“Just during that inning, I was like, ‘Three down ... two down ... one down,’” Jones said. “I was telling myself that I knew I could do this, I know I have my defense behind me and it was definitely a sigh of relief.”
Much like in its tournament opener against Simpson on Monday, SOU never trailed in its win over Northwestern.
The Raiders — playing as the home team this time around — took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first on an RBI single to shallow center by designated hitter Rebecca Velasquez.
But unlike Monday’s game, the Raiders weren’t able to add onto their lead immediately.
Instead, SOU didn’t extend its lead until the fifth.
Leadoff hitter Kelsey Randall got things going with a triple off the right field wall to open the inning and then scored on Shimek’s RBI single to center field.
After moving to third on a Northwestern throwing error, Shimek — who extended her hitting streak to eight games moments earlier — scored on a squeeze bunt by first baseman Tayler Walker to make it 3-0.
“Those were huge,” Shimek said of the two-run fifth inning. “We needed to get those for our pitchers, obviously. We all back each other up, and we backed them up with those runs.”
Randall reached base in all four of her plate appearances and scored two of SOU’s three runs in the game, while senior catcher Harlee Donovan extended her school-record on-base streak to 39 straight games with a first-inning walk.
Sandoval picked up her 24th win of the season by throwing the first 5 ? innings, allowing six hits with both of Northwestern’s runs being charged to her record.
Up until the eventful top of the sixth, Sandoval was able to work her way out of trouble in three of the first five innings, including a bases-loaded jam in the fourth inning where Randall made a fantastic diving stop up the middle — much like her play in Monday’s win — and then throwing to Donovan at home to get the force out.
“Defense wins championships. We believe that, we buy into that, we work that every single day,” Pistole said. “On a day where our offense doesn’t score nine runs, we have to rely on what we hang our hat on — and it’s defense.”
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.