SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – The waits were longer and the obstacles of a wider variety than anticipated, but the reward on the other end was never in doubt. To a Southern Oregon University softball team re-programmed in recent years to not just roll with the punches, but counter with its own, the vaunted red banner finally found its best-suited owners.
For eight-plus anxious hours Wednesday at the Killian Sports Complex, the Raiders sat on a three-run lead just nine outs away from a title as rain fell and lightning struck. They sang and danced and laughed through the delay, their joy as a collective off the field as evident as their focus was on it.
When they finally got the last of those outs, celebrating each other, as always, came naturally. This time they just did it as national champions.
In the winner-take-all finale of the NAIA World Series, SOU fought off powerhouse Oklahoma City 8-3 to capture the program's first title. The day started at 9 a.m. local time as the Raiders withstood an 8-4 setback in the first game; they were granted a second chance by virtue of coming out of the winner's bracket unscathed in the double-elimination tournament.
The momentum the third-ranked Stars (61-8) built while compiling 16 hits in the opener was promptly squashed by Raider shortstop Paige Leeper. After Allie Stines and Tayler Walker singled and a Lauren Quirke walked to load the bases in the first inning, the junior from Eagle Point fouled off four straight pitches before taking a Jaden Shores hanger deep over the 220-feet sign in center field for a grand slam and her second home run of the tourney.
SOU added a run in the second on Lauren Quirke's groundout that scored Hannah Shimek. After OCU's Brittany Perez cut into the Raider lead with an RBI double in the third, Walker drove in Shimek with a bouncer through the left side to make it 6-3 in the fourth.
That's when the rain halted play. But when the teams took the field again at 7:30 p.m., Raider ace Gabby Sandoval delivered her gutsiest work yet to finish off the Stars.
Sandoval, the junior from Anaheim, started both games – totaling 203 pitches over 10 2/3 innings against the highest-scoring lineup in the NAIA. The Stars hit her up for nine hits and six runs (four earned) in the opener. After Shimek's two-run double tied it at 2-2 in the third, the Stars knocked out Sandoval with a four-run fourth inning punctuated by a booming Baileigh Loux home run.
Sandoval limited damage early in Game 2, escaping trouble in the first and second with the help of two bunts that were popped up for double plays. When she returned to the circle in the fifth, she set the tone by striking out leadoff hitter Kennedy Jackson on three pitches, ultimately holding the Stars scoreless over their final four frames.
With her 33rd complete game – a seven-hitter in which she struck out five and gave up one earned run – Sandoval wrapped up at 36-4, giving her the 10th-most wins in NAIA single-season history and the most for any pitcher since 2013.
"We worked so hard from fall until now," Sandoval said amid the celebration. "It's just a great feeling to know we put in all the work to be here right now."
OCU's pitchers did not recover as ably as she after the delay. Shores and Kylie Dodson combined to issue four walks in the fifth inning, including one to Hannah Shimek with the bases loaded. A passed ball allowed the Raiders to score their final run.
The Raiders finished at 52-8, setting a school record for wins for the third consecutive season under Jessica Pistole, their fifth-year head coach. During their World Series run, they cut down No. 5 Lindsey Wilson (Ky.) and top-ranked defending champion Science & Arts (Okla.), then took two of three from OCU, which tops all NAIA programs with 10 national titles.
After winning championships in 2016 and 2017, the Stars' season has ended at the hands of the Raiders two years in a row.
SOU is the 22nd school to win the World Series since it started in 1981, and just the second from the Cascade Conference.
As regularly noted by Pistole, the championship seeds were planted early in her tenure. After inheriting a team that went 15-23 in 2014, she's taken the Raiders to three consecutive World Series. They'd never appeared in one previously.
When they came up one win short of an appearance in the title game last season, she credited her seniors, four-year All-American shortstop Kelsey Randall and NAIA Player of the Year Harlee Donovan, for the start of something special.
"They spoke this whole thing into existence," she said then. "Not a day went by when we didn't hear the word 'natty' and that was our whole focus. That's what they wanted for this program and that's where they believed we could get."
Minus Randall and Donovan, but with 15 contributors who got a taste last season, they finally arrived Wednesday night.