Raiders visualizing success at nationals

ASHLAND — In order to make Southern Oregon University history and escape the pool play round of the NAIA National Championships, the Raiders are going to have to pull off at least one upset, and then overcome what's expected to be a major home court advantage for Briar Cliff.

Southern Oregon's goal is to do just that — gain at least a split against top-ranked Lee and 12th-ranked Embry-Riddle then beat Briar Cliff to wrap up no worse than second in Pool A. That would allow the 14th-ranked Raiders to survive and advance as the tournament is whittled from 24 teams down to 12.

And then, says Raiders head coach Josh Rohlfing, anything can happen.

"When we met on Monday it was like, 'Hey, why can't we win this thing?" Rohlfing said. "We're not going there just to play. This isn't the end-all. A couple of the sophomores said, 'We want to win,' and that just kept getting echoed."

Southern Oregon's quest to become the first-ever Raiders squad to qualify for the final single-elimination portion of nationals begins Tuesday at the Tyson Events Center/Gateway Arena in Sioux City, Iowa. The tournament wraps up with the championship match on Dec. 4.

The Raiders (23-3), who will be making their fifth trip to the final site, aim to play in that match, but have a lot of work to do first. Their pool play schedule begins with a crucial rematch against Embry-Riddle (30-2) on Tuesday, continues the next day against the undefeated Lady Flames (35-0) and wraps up Thursday against unranked Briar Cliff (20-14), the host team.

The Raiders are led by senior setter Lindsey Stone, the three-time Cascade Collegiate Conference player of the year, junior outside hitter Sarah Holgen and junior middle blocker Megan Bartling. Stone had 35 assists, while Holgen and Bartling combined for 21 kills to help Southern Oregon trounce Holy Names in the first-round of the national tournament.

In Sioux City, the SOU-Embry-Riddle match could be the Raiders' "linchpin," as Rohlfing put it. Barring an upset in Southern Oregon's other two pool play matches, the Raiders can secure the No. 2 seed — the top two teams from each pool advance to bracket play — by avenging an early-season loss to the Eagles of Daytona Beach, Fla.

Back on Aug. 20, Embry-Riddle racked up 55 kills with a .225 attack percentage while holding Southern Oregon to a .120 clip in a 25-18, 25-17, 28-30, 25-12 victory in Ashland. The Raiders have changed their lineup and improved mightily since that loss, however, and enter the rematch riding winning streaks of 11 matches and 32 games.

"I felt good about it, to be honest," said Rohlfing, when asked about his initial reaction to the pool pairings. "The way I look at it, we've seen Embry-Riddle and we know what they're capable of doing. We know we've changed and I'm sure they've improved, too. But I feel pretty good about the things that we were lacking when we played them the last time and what we have now."

Rohlfing added that the Raiders and Eagles match up fairly evenly.

"Embry-Riddle's got three big hitters," he said. "They're definitely not physically taller or better jumpers than our team, but defensively they are very good. They've got two hitters who are relentless, and they hammer the jump serve."

SOU's second opponent in Sioux City is the odds on favorite to win the national title. Lee, which was ranked No. 1 in the last three polls, is led by senior middle blocker Kayla Carlisle — recently named the Southern States Athletic Conference Tournament MVP for the second year in a row — and has earned straight-game victories in 26 of its 35 matches.

The Lady Flames haven't been pushed to five games since Oct. 29 against No. 10 Taylor.

"They're going to be a tough chore for us," Rohlfing said.

The Raiders' final pool play opponent, the Chargers of Briar Cliff, could play the role of spoiler as they enter the tournament on a hot streak, having won three of their last four matches.

The Raiders left Ashland for Sioux City on Saturday and will be able to practice at the tournament site at least once before Tuesday's match. The Raiders weren't a great road team early in the season, Rohlfing said, but they've improved steadily and enter nationals as focused as ever.

Scouting reports will be hard to come by until the tournament begins, but the SOU coaching staff plans to do everything it can to prepare the Raiders for the big show.

"Our preparation for this one is to get all the information out to them in advance," Rohlfing said. "Give them pictures, images of the facility and take them through the visualization of that stuff. When we get there, we'll try to be as balanced as possible and play the way that we know how."

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