Raiders seek to make team history at nationals

ASHLAND — Qualifying for the NAIA national tournament is nothing new to the Southern Oregon University volleyball team. Counting this season, the Raiders have punched that ticket six times — all in the last 11 years.

What would be considered a breakthrough, however, is SOU escaping the pool play portion of the tournament and advancing to the final 12-team, single-elimination championship bracket.

That's never happened. This season — the 24-team tourney begins Tuesday at Sioux City, Iowa — likely represents the Raiders' best opportunity to do just that, and the they know it.

"I think it would be an honor and I think we can definitely do it," said senior outside hitter Sarah Holgen, who leads the team in kills (410) and ranks second in digs (264). "I think our team is diverse and capable enough to be the first SOU team to make it out of pool play and hopefully make a lasting mark in SOU volleyball."

To advance to the final 12, which begins Dec. 2 and wraps up with the championship match the following night, the 10th-ranked Raiders (21-4) must finish first or second in a four-team pool that also includes No. 3 Lee (30-2), No. 14 Vanguard (21-12) and Morningside (26-6). They play Vanguard of Costa Mesa, Calif., first on Tuesday night (5:45 p.m. Central, 3:45 Pacific), Morningside of Iowa on Wednesday and Lee of Tennessee on Thursday.

For the first time in team history the Raiders will not need an upset in order to escape pool play at nationals. And like last year, SOU's tourney-opener is shaping up to be the match that could make or break the Raiders' hopes of advancing.

Southern Oregon and Vanguard have already played each other once this season. The Raiders and Lions squared off back in August in the Holiday Inn Summer Slam, with Vanguard pulling out a five-set thriller, 25-18, 25-19, 22-25, 27-29, 15-5. Not to worry, says Holgen, pointing out that Southern Oregon was still searching for its identity early in the season. The Raiders must have found it because they will ride a 15-match winning streak into Sioux City.

"I feel like what most people don't realize," Holgen said, "is that Vanguard has probably done well this season and they've improved, but we have also. We're definitely a better team than we used to be and hopefully the amount that we've progressed is going to exceed the amount that they've progressed.

"They're there for a reason. So are we."

Lee and Morningside are also there for a reason. Lee won the Southern States Athletic Conference tournament, and Morningside picked up the host berth after winning the Great Plains Athletic Conference tournament.

Southern Oregon and Lee both earned one of 12 first-round byes, while Vanguard trounced La Sierra in straight games.

SOU and then-No. 1 Lee met in a pool play match last year as well. The Raiders nearly pulled off what would have been a stunning upset, winning the first two sets, but Lee stormed back to win in five.

"I hope we can just take them in three (this year) and just show them we can do it," said SOU senior middle blocker Megan Bartling, who has 228 kills and a team-high 105 blocks.

Holgen and Bartling both said that SOU's hot streak — the Raiders haven't lost since Sept. 17 — can be attributed to its ever-improving team chemistry, forged during some early road trips.

The Raiders' often spectacular offense hasn't hurt, either. Southern Oregon is hitting at a .250 clip, which ranks 19th in the nation, and averages 13.6 kills per set, which ranks 15th. Holgen's 4.5 kills per set ranks third nationally.

That offense is choreographed by two setters — juniors Caryn Westrick and Angela Spieker — who have combined for 999 aces. Senior libero Becky Johnstone leads the team with 329 digs.

Holgen says the Raiders are peaking at just the right time.

"In the beginning you figure out your strengths and weaknesses, then toward the middle you're working out all the kinks," she said. "And then toward the end you have a rhythm, you know what works, you know what you need to work on and you're just playing to your strengths and improving your weaknesses. We're finding that rhythm, and we're finding how each of us fits into that puzzle.

"That's the part that's exciting."

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