No. 10 SOU opens nationals with victory

Tenth-ranked Southern Oregon University took a big step toward what would be the program's first-ever berth in the championship volleyball bracket with a four-set pool play victory over No. 14 Vanguard in the opening day of the NAIA National Championships Tuesday at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa.

The Raiders (22-4) won the first two sets and went on an 8-3 run to tie the third at 15-all before the Lions (22-13) made their last stand. The designated visitors from Costa Mesa, Calif., came back to take the third game and rallied from 21-15 down in the fourth to make it 22-21. But Southern Oregon responded with back-to-back kills by Megan Bartling and Sarah Holgen, and a crafty dump winner by setter Caryn Westrick clinched a 25-22, 25-15, 18-25, 25-23 win.

"I felt really good about he way we came out," said SOU head coach Josh Rohlfing, whose team avenged a five-set loss to Vanguard in August. "I think, as to be expected, we came out a little nervous, tight, but after we got them calmed down and in a rhythm we really looked like the team we've been for the last month-and-a-half of the season."

Bartling had 16 kills, on just 23 attacks, and Holgen had 12 kills and nine digs for the Raiders, who play host Morningside this afternoon. A win over the unranked Mustangs (26-6) would virtually guarantee the Raiders their first berth into the championship bracket after five previous trips to nationals.

SOU's third and final pool play match is Thursday against No. 3 Lee, which beat Morningside in another Pool C match Tuesaday.

Becky Johnstone had 21 digs and Renee Yomtob added 15, plus two aces, for Southern Oregon. Westrick and Becky Johnstone combined for 51 assists.

"The focus was, 'Let's improve,'" Rohlfing said, "and I felt that we did do that. But I felt like if we lose that match, to be frank, we have a really big hill to climb to try and make it to the final day."

For Vanguard, which lost for the fourth time in its last six matches, KaUwila Lavea had 17 kills and Jamie Heenan 15, while Alexandra Leja had 27 assists and Lisa Morgan 18 digs.

Southern Oregon earned its 16th win in a row behind an offense that stumbled through the third set, but was red hot the rest of the night. The Raiders hit .280 with 62 kills, including .382, 16-kill second set and a .349, 21-kill fourth set.

"Vanguard was really good," Rohlfing said, "but the difference, I felt, was our two middles — (Bartling) and Lauren (Swetland) — and our floor defense, playing behind them was incredible. That was probably the best defensive match that I've seen us play."

It started with Bartling's dominance at the net, Rohlfing added.

"She's just playing with such good control," he said of the former North Medford standout, who's had 10 kills or more in six straight matches. "She gets what she needs to do now. She's up on every play, she's being aggressive on every play. This is the girl that we've tried to get for four years and she's always been good, but right now she's becoming great. It's the right time."

The Raiders were at their best when the pressure was one, holding off Vanguard rallies at the end of the first and fourth sets.

In the first, Vanguard used a 5-1 run to cut SOU's 18-13 lead to 19-18. SOU gained a little breathing room thanks to consecutive miscues by the Lions — a service error followed by a setting error — and picked up two more key points on kills by Bartling. The senior middle blocker hit .609 with just two errors.

Westrick clinched the first set with a kill of her own, a surprise tip into open space that proved equally effective at another crucial moment later.

In the fourth, three kills apiece by Bartling, Holgen, Natalie Scheller and Swetland helped SOU jump out to a 16-10 lead. A combination block by Heenan and Candace Cedarstrom denied Holgen's attempt at a match-clinching kill and brought the Lions within one at 24-23. But Westrick came through again on the next point, dinking the ball to the ground to help SOU escape with a crucial pool play victory.

After the match, Leja approached Westrick and said: "Really, you're going to do that on game point?"

Westrick's risky, and timely, tips were fine by Rohlfing — at least on Tuesday, since both led to Raider celebrations.

"The funny part is, if that play doesn't work out I'm probably not very happy," he said, "But in hindsight, because she made the play it was a great play, it's fine. We usually like our hitters to have the final say, but she's such a smart player, and you can't be upset."

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