Story by Southern Oregon University Sports Information Director Josh McDermott
CLERMONT, Fla. – Four days after Marian chased Gabby Sandoval out of the circle with her briefest start of the season, Southern Oregon's sophomore ace took the ball again Tuesday with the pressure turned up a notch against the same Knights lineup.
Sandoval's mettle-tested response ensured the Raiders will see at least one more day at the NAIA World Series. In an elimination game at Legends Way Ballfields, she worked with SOU's slick defense to turn in her 20th complete game and a 2-1 victory, blanking Marian over the final six frames.
The No. 3-seeded Knights (51-7) are going home, and the No. 6-seeded Raiders (50-14) are sticking around – having checked off three of the seven consecutive wins they need for a title. Their next must-win contest is slated for a 10:30 a.m. Eastern Time start Wednesday against No. 2-seeded Oklahoma City (53-8), the defending national champion. The winner will play immediately after against the loser of a winner's bracket matchup between the tourney's only other remaining teams, No. 4 Science & Arts (Okla.) and No. 10 Columbia (Mo.).
In the game that sent the Raiders to the elimination bracket – a 10-6 Marian win Friday in the tournament opener for both teams – Sandoval was relieved after recording one out and allowing four runs. In her redemption outing, she danced around six hits and two walks in a 109-pitch effort with 72 strikes, 24 hours removed from her eight-hit shutout of Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.).
"Gabby's a fighter," SOU head coach Jessica Pistole said. "She's battled through stuff all year at different times and we talked a lot the last couple days about how to approach this challenge. She was ready to go back out and she went right at them."
The Knights' 2-1 loss to Columbia late Monday night put them in the must-win situation. They opted to go with their No. 2 starter, Shelby Herron, after SOU knocked 25-2 ace Breena Smith for six runs in the first matchup. Herron (14-2) threw admirably in her own complete game, scattering eight singles and stranding nine runners on base, but the Raiders got the only runs they needed in the first and third innings.
Freshman second baseman Hannah Shimek, in possession of SOU's hottest postseason bat, scored both. In the first, her one-out single up the middle and Harlee Donovan's hit-by-pitch put her on second base. She then stole third, and catcher Sadie Baugh's throw down the line ricocheted off the helmet of Tayler Walker in the batter's box and sailed into the outfield as Shimek scored without a play.
Marian got its run in the bottom half on Carly Greene's sacrifice fly after loading the bases with two singles and a walk. But Shimek started the third with another hit through the hole at second and promptly swiped her 36th base. She moved to third on Donovan's flyout and scored on Rebecca Velasquez's jam-shot that was muscled into shallow center field.
Sandoval and the defense did the rest. With two Knights on and one out in the third, right fielder Olivia Mackey made a sliding catch of cleanup hitter Issy Hoyt's popup. The next batter, Greene, hit a liner to first that Walker snagged from her knees.
Sandoval worked out of a bases-loaded threat in the fourth, inducing a groundout to Walker after SOU's lone error kept the inning alive. She retired nine of the final 10 Knights she faced on groundouts, needing only two strikeouts to finish the job.
"We showed up in the circle and on defense," Pistole said. "If you have those two pieces, you can stay in any game. I still believe defense wins championships."
The Raiders are 14-5 in one-run games, and 37-1 when bringing a lead into the fifth inning. When they commit one or no errors, they're 38-6.
More importantly, they're 9-1 in postseason elimination games dating back to last season.
Their next one, against Oklahoma City (which eliminated top-seeded Georgia Gwinnett on Tuesday), was originally scheduled for a 10 a.m. start. It's been pushed back because the winner's bracket game between Columbia and Science & Arts – tied 2-2 through 3 ½ innings – has been postponed due to rain until 9 a.m. Wednesday.
Whoever makes it out of Wednesday will play in the championship round at 12 p.m. Thursday. If necessary, Game 2 will start 30 minutes after Game 1's completion.
"We're in a good place," Pistole said. "We've battled through and the girls know they can win every game we have left; it's just two doubleheaders. They're loose, and acclimated, and super hungry."