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Madison Stateler (1) bends the bat as she hits a pitch during the match between Eastern Oregon University and Providence University at Peggy Anderson Softball Field, La Grande on Friday, March 25, 2022.

KLAMATH FALLS — After a valiant run at the Cascade Collegiate Conference tournament title, the Eastern Oregon University softball program ultimately saw its hopes end just one round shy of the conference championship game.

The Mountaineers strung together a strong regular season to secure the third seed heading into the tournament, jostling for position at the top of the conference standings with several of the nation’s top-ranked teams. While Eastern’s conference run came up short and the team’s postseason fate now relies on a potential at-large berth, the team’s quarterfinal victory tied a program record for wins in a season with 41.

Taking care of business in the opener

After battling out the closure of the regular season to secure the No. 3 seed in the Cascade Collegiate Conference, the Mountaineers faced a first-round matchup against six-seeded Corban. Eastern took care of business late in the game, running away with an 8-1 victory despite a close start.

After taking a 1-0 lead in the first inning, Eastern found itself tied 1-1 heading into the bottom of the fifth inning — at this point in the game, the Mountaineers took full control. Eastern scored two runs in the bottom of the fifth off RBI hits from Madison Stateler and Taylor Dow for a 3-1 lead.

Just one inning later, RBIs from Haley Ebner, Stateler, Hannah Tyree, Dow and Grace Gaither blew the game wide open. The Mountaineers extended an 8-1 lead, allowing for the team to close out the final half inning.

Amanda Smith earned her 18th win of the season, pitching all seven innings and allowing one run off just two hits. The senior struck out nine opposing batters in the win, including two in the top of the seventh to secure Eastern’s spot in the next round.

Entering the tournament as the three seed, Eastern was tasked with playing its quarter final game just hours after defeating Corban — the Mountaineers matched up with rival No. 8 Southern Oregon, a team that Eastern went 1-3 against in the regular season.

The contest was a nail-biter, as Eastern once again relied on a late rally to take the victory. Southern Oregon got on the board first, taking a 1-0 lead in the top of the third off a throwing error.

In the bottom of the fifth inning, Stateler played the hero role with a three-run home run to left field that flipped the script. The deep shot scored Shelby Starr and Rhyanne Oates to give the Mountaineers a 3-1 lead.

Smith, pitching in her second game of the day, closed out the final two innings in commanding fashion. She allowed only one run off three hits, striking out three batters.

The victory secured Eastern’s spot in the semifinals against No. 4 Oregon Tech, the host team for this year’s tournament. The Mountaineers snapped a 17-game winning streak by Southern Oregon heading into the conference tournament.

Dropping an extra inning contest

After a successful first day, Eastern matched up with the top-seeded Oregon Tech Hustlin’ Owls in the semifinal round. A three-game conference sweep of Oregon Tech in late April propelled the Mountaineers’ up the season and stood out as a season-defining series. However, Eastern did not find the same success in the tournament contest, falling 6-5 in extra innings.

The Mountaineers remained neck-and-neck with the Hustlin’ Owls, battling out a scoreless first three and a half innings. Oregon Tech took control of the game, managing one run in the fourth and two in the fifth for a 3-0 lead.

In a late-game push to reach the final game, Eastern’s bats came alive in a huge sixth inning. Gaither and Kayla Berg each hit two-RBI doubles, giving the Mountaineers a 4-3 advantage.

Stateler added an insurance run on a fielder’s choice, scoring Berg on an error to put Eastern in the driver’s seat up 5-3. Just when it looked as if Eastern was in command, Oregon Tech’s Zoe Allen hit a two-RBI single in the bottom of the sixth to tie the game at 5-all. Extra innings would be needed to determine the winner.

With one out in the bottom of the eighth inning, Oregon Tech’s Lexi Klum connected on a solo home run to left field to walk off the game in victory for the Hustlin’ Owls. The devastating blow propelled Eastern to the consolation bracket, where one more loss would spell the end of the team’s conference run.

Bounced from tournament

In the consolation semifinal matchup against the College of Idaho, Eastern’s strong run at the conference ultimately stalled.

The Mountaineers scored the first run of the game in the top of the first inning on a Tyree home run and went on to lead 2-1 after three innings, but the Yotes pulled away late to win comfortably.

A five-run fourth inning by the College of Idaho was the dagger for Eastern, which went on to lose 8-2. Smith received the loss, just her sixth of the season, after allowing six runs over three and one third innings.

The loss ended Eastern’s conference title run, as Oregon Tech went on to win the championship game 1-0 on an eighth-inning walk-off hit. Despite bowing out in the semifinals, the Mountaineers’ late-season push propelled the team to a No. 15 ranking in the latest NAIA poll — the spot is favorable for an at-large bid into the NAIA tournament, but it is not a guarantee.

The NAIA selection show is set to air at 2 p.m. on May 10, on the NAIA’s Facebook page. The committee’s decision will determine if Eastern’s season hopes continue.

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