Oregon State hopes Super Regional is just the start of a new standard
Mariah Mazon has starred at Oregon State for five seasons. She's played in a lot of big games and will depart as one of the best players in program history, but she has never been on this stage.
Friday, Mazon and the Beavers will play in their first Super Regional since 2006 when they take on Stanford at Smith Family Stadium.
"It just feels really cool that we know that all of the hard work we've put in has finally paid off," said Mazon, one of the top two-way players in the country.
Mazon and her teammates are excited to be two wins away from the Women's College World Series, but they are trying to downplay the magnitude of it.
"The biggest thing is not making it bigger than it really is," said head coach Laura Berg. "And I tell them all the time, it's a simple game. See ball, hit ball, and play catch. We do that, we're gonna be just fine."
Eventually, the Beavers hope the program gets to a point where playing in Supers becomes the norm. They hope that time is now.
While Mazon, their best player, will depart the program after this season, it's otherwise a young team. Talented and hungry, too.
Junior first baseman Frankie Hammoude is one of the top sluggers in the Pac-12, freshman infielder Kiki Escobar is among the conference's leaders in hits and freshman pitcher Sarah Haendiges is one of the top arms in the conference, emerging as a strong complement to Mazon in the circle.
"I think for me next year I'm gonna ensure that everyone knows this should be the standard...and our team is going to continue getting better," Haendiges said. "Obviously losing Mariah is going to suck, but I know that for her and for Frankie, this is a big deal and it should just continue to be what we strive to do."
That's not just talk from Haendiges. She's tried to soak in as much as she can this season so she can be a leader next year. She is constantly picking Mazon's brain.
"Oh my gosh, I literally ask her like 100 questions a day, I think I annoy her at times," Haendiges said. "In moments that I feel not confident, or if I'm flustered, she always knows what to say to get me back in the right headspace and ensure me that I'm gonna be able to do it. She just makes moments that are big, small."
Haendiges' drive to be better isn't unique to her. It's something the Beavers emphasized in September when they first met as a team.
"It's amazing," Berg said in a pre-Supers interview. "They talk about the bad apple ruining the bunch, it really is true. You get rid of the negative people and bring in a good group of young kids who really wanted to change the culture, and that was one of the things that they said.
"We sat down September 15, when we're allowed to start and said, 'This is what we want.' And I said, 'Okay, then what is the culture? I have my idea what it is and what I think it should be, what are your ideas? And we just sat down there and we talked about it. I remember it being in our hitting facility and it being a really long conversation about this is what it's going to look like and you have to hold each other accountable to it. Because you can talk it, but if you don't live by it, it's not going to mean anything."
When asked if the team has followed through with it, Berg said "absolutely."
"Did we have ups and downs of it? Yeah," she said. "But you just kind of reel them back in and say, 'Alright, guys, this is what you put in place, this is what you have set down right here, these are the commandments that you wrote, tou got to live by them now. And so you just read them when they start to get out a little bit, which hasn't happened very much."
The Beavers have been terrific this season, winning 37 games, their most since 2007. They went into the Knoxville Regional and won two must-win games to knock out No. 11 Tennessee. Haendiges pitched six scoreless innings in the winner-take-all game, and Mazon pitched the seventh after clubbing the go-ahead homer.
All that stands in the way of the WCWS now is a Stanford team that they already took two of three from in Corvallis in mid-March.
"It's been crazy," Haendiges said. "I've been watching the World Series, road to the World Series, since I was little, so it honestly doesn't feel real. But we're a part of it."
Haendiges and Mazon were masterful against Stanford in the first matchup, holding the Cardinal to one run all series. Still, all three games were close and they're not about to let up now.
"I remember them just being really good scrappy hitters, and their pitching was obviously really good too," Mazon said. "I know that they will be tough games, but if we just play our defense the way we can and have good at-bats, I think that we'll be in a good spot."
Berg doesn't put much stock in the previous matchups with Stanford, saying both teams have improved since then. The Cardinal are coming off a huge weekend of their own, toppling No. 6 Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
"I hate that we have to play them, but it is what it is," Berg said. "And Jess Allister, in my eyes, is one of the most amazing coaches. What she did at Minnesota, and then come in here (to Stanford) and turning this program around, she's incredible."
The same can be said for Berg at Oregon State.
"It's really exciting to have a new opportunity in my last year to get to do this," Mazon said. "I know all the freshmen are super excited, and as a team we're just excited. ... I think we're turning a lot of heads."