College Softball: All-American Graham Reflects on Softball Career at Oregon Tech
THE REAL WORLD: W.F. West Alum Proud of Her Four Years in Owl Softball Program
By Matt Baide
Ali Graham walked off the field in Springfield, Missouri, on May 25 for the final time in her softball career. While there were some things she wasn’t able to accomplish, she’s proud of the four years she spent in Klamath Falls, Oregon.
“I miss it a lot. I think right in the beginning once my season had ended, I was like, ‘Oh, it will be okay.’ But now that time has kind of drug on, I definitely miss it,” Graham said. “I’m probably going to miss it in the fall a lot more because that would be when I was heading back to school and that’s when I would be starting those workouts and doing all that kind of stuff. I have a whole new appreciation for it now that it’s not a part of my everyday life.”
Rewind back to Chehalis in 2015 when Graham was a Bearcat, winning her second state title in four years with a 3-2 win over White River. W.F. West won the state title in 2012 in Graham’s freshman year, defeating Tumwater 15-3 in the championship game.
Her performance throughout her four years in the crimson and grey helped her earn an offer from the Oregon Institute of Technology.
“The reason I went to Oregon Tech was of course, I wanted to play softball, so that was one thing that really drew me there and then the career that I’m in now which is radiology. I take X-rays and stuff like that,” Graham said. “I found out they had that program and it was like the best of both worlds. I get to play softball and I get to do the job that I’ve been wanting to do since I was a sophomore in high school, so that’s kind of what drove me towards OIT.”
Having played plenty of select softball throughout high school, it didn’t take Graham long to adjust to the level of the college game. As a freshman in 2016, she had a .413 batting average, which was fourth in the Cascade Collegiate Conference. She had 62 hits including 12 doubles and nine home runs. She scored 16 runs while collecting 44 RBI with a slugging percentage of .673.
In the circle, she was 10-8 in 29 appearances, starting in 14 of those games. Graham had a 2.78 ERA with 32 strikeouts and held opponents to a .260 batting average. She earned a 2016 honorable mention on the NAIA’s All-American teams.
In 2017, Graham appeared in 27 games in the circle, starting 10 of those appearances. She finished 8-1 with a 3.50 ERA in 86 innings pitched. She struck out 27 batters and allowed hitters an average of .298.
“My pitching coach from back home, Ken Gray, every time I would come home, we would kind of tweak things a little bit here, a little bit there. It was nothing that, when I went to college, nothing I needed to change, it was just making sure I was keeping the habits that I had as good habits and not creating any bad habits,” Graham said. “I owe a lot to Ken Gray and I owe a lot to my parents because my dad was there catching me all the time. He was picking up stuff and obviously my college coach would notice things here and there so I got really lucky to have such a good college coach that kind of let me do my thing and let me focus on how to be a good pitcher and then he didn’t really come in and try and change things, he just let the flow go as it was.”
At the plate, she hit .346 in 53 games played, collecting 55 hits including nine doubles and eight home runs. She scored 20 runs and knocked in 37 runs and had a slugging percentage of .553. She earned a Second Team All-American selection by the NAIA.
Oregon Tech was 36-17 overall in her sophomore campaign. The Owls reached the NAIA tournament but lost in the opening round to Marian University twice to end the season.
Graham’s junior year saw her take on a different role. After appearing in the circle many times, she only pitched in five games and 8 ⅓ innings total, compiling a 2.52 ERA.
With other pitchers coming in, Graham turned into the team’s primary designated hitter.
“I was getting hits and I was producing and so he kind of slid me into that DH role because our other pitchers didn’t hit and the rest of our lineup, they were position players so they had secured their spot. They were all good hitters so he really needed a DH and as my time went on, that was just kind of the role I morphed into,” Graham said. “I was still a pitcher but I was somebody that could consistently have good at-bats and I could hit for our pitchers when obviously, they were mainly just pitchers so that was something I guess I kind of liked. I was able to still focus on pitching but I had that fun aspect of really making myself better as a hitter every year that went on. There were so many new things to learn and to adjust to, I kind of appreciated that. It made me appreciate my hitting role a lot more.”
The ability to focus on just hitting showed in her junior year statistics. She played in 54 games, bringing her average up from her sophomore year to .391, which was second in the conference. She collected 72 hits, good enough for fourth in the conference, including 10 doubles and seven home runs. She tallied 29 runs and ranked fourth in the conference with 42 RBI and a slugging percentage of .560. She ranked eighth in conference with a .423 on-base percentage.
OIT was 39-15 overall in Graham’s junior season. The Owls once again reached the NAIA Tournament, but fell in the opening round, losing to Georgia Gwinnett College twice to end the season.
Graham came back for her senior season in a leadership role and continued her tear at the plate, putting up career numbers. Her .426 batting average was third in the conference and her .685 slugging percentage was fourth in the conference. Her 55 runs and 57 RBI each ranked third and she led the conference with 92 hits. Graham led the conference with 148 total bases and her 20 doubles and 12 home runs each ranked third in conference.
She pitched more than she did in her junior year and also put up career numbers in the circle. She appeared in 31 games and started 17 games, pitching 132 innings with a 2.86 ERA, which was eighth in the conference. Batters hit just .248 against Graham, which was sixth in the conference and she struck out 78 batters, which was seventh in the conference. Her 13 wins in the circle were tied for fourth in the conference.
“I’m definitely pretty proud of myself. You set those goals really high and seeing that I was able to accomplish them made me pretty proud of myself. It really showed that to me, especially some of the younger girls that have come up to me, it shows to them and to myself that the hard work really does pay off,” Graham said. “Putting in that time even when you don’t sometimes want to be there or you’ve had a really rough day. It really shows that hitting that extra bucket of balls or throwing those extra 30 more pitches, like it does pay off so that’s kind of how I felt. I was pretty proud of myself.”
Oregon Tech reached the NAIA World Series for the first time in four years in 2019, in which Graham noted she had her most memorable moment.
OIT fell to University of Mobile (Alabama) in their opener, 3-2. The Owls faced Valley City State University out of North Dakota the next day in an elimination game. After the Vikings scored a run in the top of the first inning, Graham stepped to the plate with one out and one runner on base.
“I had kind of hit OK the day before but I get up to bat and I hit, my first pitch, was a 2-run home run. I guess for me, that was like heck yeah. I was able to produce for my team but it was like a big deal because we hadn’t been to the World Series in I think four years and we were down a run at that point,” Graham said. “It was the only home run that pitcher had given up her entire season so to kind of have that moment and be like, yeah, I did that. It was a pretty cool feeling for me.”
Oregon Tech won the game 7-1 to eliminate VCSU but the Owls were eliminated themselves the next day by Georgia Gwinnett College, 5-1. Even though they only won one game, Graham was happy to end her career at the World Series.
“We hadn’t made it the last three years. We were one game short from going and so finally being able to go was like, it was just really an amazing feeling because everyone on the team had worked so hard and all the teams I’ve been a part of have worked so hard,” Graham said. “We have just come up short until this last year so it was a really good feeling for everybody and I know that me and one of the other seniors, we were the only four year seniors on the team so it was a really emotional moment being there for us because we had seen it and we tried to get there but we finally made it on our last hurrah. It was a really emotional and a special week that we were there.”
Graham was named an NAIA First Team All-American in her senior year, but knows that she wouldn’t have achieved her success without her teammates.
“Over the four years that I was at OIT, I think every team was obviously individual but we definitely grew. The girls that I was with, we grew a whole lot and we got a lot closer,” Graham said. “Each team I was on was really hard working and driven. That was something that I noticed being a part of a team of everyone wanting everyone to do well and we all pushed each other and we got really close knit and tight. That was really nice to be a part of.”
Not only did she improve and grow as a softball player while at Oregon Tech, she also grew up as a person.
“I definitely think I grew a tremendous amount. You go through the highs and lows and being at college and kind of being on my own, it really made me more responsible. It really made me really have to keep track of my time because there are times when I went to class around 8 a.m. and then I would have practice so I wouldn’t be home until 8 p.m. so I was really good at planning out my days and what I needed to bring and stuff like that,” Graham said. “I got really good at scheduling everything, making sure things happen on time. I had a really good team that I was a part of, it was a family. If you had a hard day, your family was there to pick you up, so I was pretty lucky.”
Although she is done with softball, she isn’t done with school. She’s currently in Richland, working at Kadlec Hospital in the radiology department for her final year of schooling. She will graduate next June with her Bachelor’s of Science in Radiologic Science.
She misses softball and appreciates what the game has done for her.
“I definitely love the game so much. I have so much respect and appreciation for it. It’s definitely grown me as a person and it’s taught me so much that you know, I really do love it,” Graham said. “I think that it’s so important to love what you do and love the game itself and so I got pretty lucky that I stayed in love with it. It gave me so much, it gave me so many good memories.”
She keeps track of the Bearcat softball program since her time in Chehalis and comes back to visit family on occasion, including recently when her sister got married.
Graham played for Mike Keen during her four years at W.F. West and was also pleased to see he earned a spot in the Washington State Softball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
After her long softball journey, Graham had some words of advice for any girls looking to be a fastpitch player.
“If they want to pitch or they want to be a good hitter, I think just one thing that I would take away from it is listen to the coaches. Listen to the people who are trying to help you and just be a sponge and absorb as much as you can,” Graham said. “But also enjoy the moment and have fun and if anyone is thinking about going to Chehalis, I highly recommend it but that’s just because I’m a biased alumni. Enjoy the game and appreciate it for what it is because before you know it, you might be a retired athlete like me.”