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Defending Big Sky Tournament champions, still youthful Vikings aim for another strong finish to season.

COURTESY PHOTO: HARRISON KERVITSKY/PSU ATHLETICS - Third-year Portland State pitcher Olivia Grey has had a strong season as she continues to improve her understanding of how to attack college hitters.For a defending champion, it's a question that comes naturally: Will you repeat?

It's a question members of the Portland State softball team hear as the Big Sky Tournament nears.

"Our response to that is, 'No, we're just going to recreate. It's a different journey. It's a different team,'" Vikings' coach Meadow McWhorter said.

The Vikings head to Ogden, Utah, Wednesday, May 11, through Friday, May 12, for the 2022 Big Sky tournament in a different place than in 2021. A year ago, the Vikings carried a losing record and the No. 5 seed into the tournament. This year, they'll enter with a winning record and seeded no lower than No. 3.

Portland State is 26-16 (10-5 Big Sky) entering two games Saturday, May 7, at the Gordon Faber Complex in Hillsboro, where — weather permitting, Friday's doubleheader was rained out — the Vikings face league champion Weber State to close the regular season.

Facing the Wildcats just prior to the conference tournament is nice, McWhorter said.

"It's actually really beneficial to play the top team going into the tournament because they're going to be familiar" if the teams play in the Big Sky tourney.

This time of year, all of the fundamental work is done. Success comes from trusting in the work done since September. McWhorter wants her players enjoying the home stretch of the season.

"We're gonna go out and compete and put our best foot out there. We've talked a lot within the last two weeks about just playing for the love of the game," she said.

Many of the PSU players were along for the fun ride last spring — six of this season's usual starters were regulars in the 2021 lineup. And, while this is the first complete September-to-May journey for every player on the roster, the success of last season is certainly a valuable ingredient for 2022. With only one senior on this team, the program is positioned for a good run beyond this season.

The Vikings are led in the circle by third-year sophomore pitcher Olivia Grey. Grey enters the Weber State series with a 17-6 record. Her earned run average is 2.05 and opponents are hitting .197.

McWhorter said Grey's thirst for improvement is perhaps the pitcher's greatest asset. Last season, McWhorter said, Grey improved her ability to locate pitches and keep hitters off balance rather than simply overpowering them with speed. She's become more sophisticated in her third college season.

"This year, it's been really fun working with her because she's making adjustments pitch to pitch when needed. She has a better understanding of hitters and hitters' strengths and understanding the sequences and why we're throwing what we're throwing," McWhorter said.

Portland State has won pitching duels and slugfests such as the 15-11 win at Idaho State on May 1. The Vikings split a pair of games with Pac-12 teams Oregon State and California.

Tualatin High grad Emily Johansen had a huge weekend in the three-game series at Idaho State, going 5 for 9 with four home runs and a .714 on-base percentage as the Vikings took two of three games.

COURTESY PHOTO: HARRISON KERVITSKY/PSU ATHLETICS - Emily Johansen, pictured during an early-season tournament in Tempe, Arizona, has been one of the most consistent hitters for the Portland State softball team.The cleanup hitter for much of the season, Johansen (.313, seven homers) recently was moved to the No. 2 hole in the batting order and has thrived hitting between leadoff hitter Olivia Dean (.293, 19 stolen bases) and Logan Riggenbach. Riggenbach is the top hitter in the Big Sky (.394 average, .518 in conference games) and leads the Vikings in most offensive categories, including one of three with eight home runs. Catcher Paetynn Lopez provides pop in the middle of the order with eight homers.

McWhorter said she shifted Johansen up in the order to add some pop for the times when hitters lower in the order get on base, which can lead to extended innings. The coach noted that many teams are using fewer bunts to advance runners, PSU included.

"When we get (runners) on, we're going to look to run or we're going to look to hit," she said. "We're not just going to automatically give up that out every time, because we've got hitters at the plate who can get the job done."

Portland State entered the final three regular-season games with a .276 batting average. The Viks have hit 29 home runs and stolen 55 bases on 65 attempts. Solid numbers, to be sure. But it's defense that has allowed PSU to get near the 30-win mark.

Portland State's 31 errors are the fewest in the Big Sky and its .971 fielding is just off Weber state's conference-leading .973. Shortstop Dean, sophomore Maddie Thompson at second base, Johansen at first and Lopez catching all played extensively in 2021, as did center fielder Alexa Cepeda out of Keizer.

Without sophomore Bailey Rose (knee injury), the only left-handed pitcher on the roster, it's been pitching by committee behind Grey. Sophomore Allicitie Frost has appeared in 18 games and freshman Annie Lemos and junior Marisol Gaona 12 apiece.

Defense likely will define how much further this season goes. McWhorter noted that come tournament time, every opponent will have faced Grey multiple times, so the pitcher must trust her defense.

"She's going to do her job, but a lot of it's going to be pitched to contact," McWhorter said.

That, McWhorter said, means "trusting the pitches thrown, trusting they're going to make contact, but trusting it's going to go to a teammate and they're going to connect in that moment and finish that play for you."

Connection is a word McWhorter uses often to describe her team. In addition to softball skills, the Vikings spend a lot of time on the mental/emotional part of competing — and of living.

"We talk about this all the time, about playing where your feet are," McWhorter said. "But we really have talked a lot about living where your feet are, and really enjoying these moments — the tough ones and the good ones — and really taking in the love from the teammates and just truly being present."

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