MEDFORD — With a winner-take-all game putting its season on the line, the Southern Oregon University softball team came out swinging like there was no tomorrow on Wednesday night.
Again. And again. And again.
SOU scored six unanswered runs in the first two innings of the Southern Oregon Regional championship game, and freshman right-hander Allie Hancock pitched into the fifth to claim an 8-3 win over the University of St. Francis (Illinois) at U.S. Cellular Community Park to book its ticket back to the NAIA World Series.
“It feels awesome to have earned this — and these girls flat out earned it,” said SOU head coach Jessica Pistole, whose team surpassed its 2017 season win total of 46 with its regional-clinching victory. “(Making it back to the NAIA World Series) is a reality. We’re going to go out in Florida. We’re going to go out and give it all we got.”
Twelve months after making it to the NAIA World Series for the first time in program history, the Raiders will be spending the final week of May in Florida for the second consecutive season.
Just minutes after the final out against St. Francis, SOU (47-13 overall) learned when it will open play in Clermont, Florida — against No. 3 seed Marian (Indiana) (50-5) at 3 p.m. Pacific Time on May 25.
“I want it so bad for our seniors,” SOU freshman first baseman Tayler Walker said. “I want to do it for them. They’ve worked so hard this season and they deserve it, so that’s my goal, just being able to do it for them and work hard for them.”
Having won their first two games of the NAIA Opening Round, the Raiders had room for error as the Fighting Saints — the champions of the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference — needed to sweep Wednesday’s schedule to make it to the national tournament.
St. Francis was able to get the first game of the day with a 6-5 walk-off victory after SOU rallied to tie the game with two runs in the top of the seventh.
But come the second game — which was pushed back nearly four hours due to heavy rain in Medford — the Raiders were about as locked in at the plate as they’ve been all tournament long.
As it did in each of its first three games of the NAIA Opening Round, Southern Oregon took a lead in the first inning.
Walker smoked a double down the left-field line to put the Raiders in front 1-0 before third baseman Karlee Coughlin followed that run-scoring double with one of her own, a two-run liner to the fence in right-center.
An inning later, the Raiders doubled their lead.
Hannah Shimek — who entered Wednesday’s decisive game with 14 hits in her last 22 at-bats — brought in No. 9 hitter Avery Morehead-Hutsel with an RBI triple to left-center. Harlee Donovan, who had been pitched around ever since her two-run home run against Simpson on Monday, made it 5-0 with an RBI single up the middle and then scored on a St. Francis outfield error.
“In the first game (against St. Francis), we all felt we were uptight and weren’t playing relaxed, so our goal this game was to take it one pitch at a time and just do what we know how to do,” Coughlin said. “We like to do it the tough way, but it’s fine. We all felt like we were confident in each other and we had no doubt in our mind that we were going to win this thing. From the beginning, we were going to do it together and that was our only choice.”
According to Pistole, the key for her team — one that left 14 runners on base in the loss to St. Francis — was just making adjustments at the plate that they weren’t able to do earlier in the day.
“The reality was, we had to make adjustments to bring those runners home,” Pistole said. “It was all mental adjustments to pitches (St. Francis starting pitcher Morghan Dieringer) was beating us on. We talked about it, we worked it and they were dialed in.”
Pistole joked that even though it was a 6-0 lead after an inning and change, it still felt like a one-run ball game from the get-go.
Luckily for the Raiders, Hancock was able to match her offense’s impressive start.
In her first start of the postseason, Hancock kept a St. Francis lineup that entered the tournament hitting .330 as a team relatively quiet. Hancock allowed seven hits and was charged with all three of the runs the Fighting Saints scored, but was able to work her way out of serious trouble each and every inning before Pistole took her out with two runners on in the fifth in favor of Gabby Sandoval.
As she did for the past three games of the tournament, relief pitcher Morgan Jones once again gave the Raiders a boost out of the bullpen.
Jones threw two shutout innings in relief of Sandoval, including a 4-3-6 double play in the bottom of the seventh to erase a leadoff single.
“Ground-ball queen,” Pistole said of Jones. “That’s what we needed and that’s what we worked on this turf all week long. She was so clutch ... so clutch.”
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.