Southern Oregon earns trip to Iowa

ASHLAND — Sioux City, Iowa, is pretty cold this time of year. But if the white-hot Raiders keep this up, they might as well leave their winter coats behind — it's been that kind of November.

In a rematch of the season opener for both teams, 14th-ranked Southern Oregon swept away Holy Names, 25-23, 25-21, 25-13, during the opening round of the NAIA National Championships Saturday at McNeal Pavilion.

The win clinched SOU's fifth trip to the final site and first since 2004. Pool play runs Nov. 30 through Dec. 2, and single-elimination bracket play starts Dec. 3 in Sioux City, where the Raiders (23-3) will be looking to continue their phenomenal late-season surge. Southern Oregon has won 11 matches and 32 games in a row, and according to its All-American setter, there's more where that came from.

"I don't want to go to Sioux City and have that be the ultimatum," Lindsey Stone said. "I want to go to Sioux City and make a racket."

Like their straight-game win over Holy Names on Aug. 16, the Raiders weren't at the top of their game Saturday but they didn't need to be to take out the Hawks (16-11).

Southern Oregon hit at a .146 clip in the first game and .210 for the match, well below its season average. But the Raiders' defense made up the difference, racking up 11 blocks and holding the Hawks to a .109 attack percentage.

Megan Bartling led the Raiders with 11 kills on 19 attacks and Sarah Holgen had 10 kills and nine digs. Middle blocker Lauren Swetland terrorized the Hawks at the net, finishing with two blocks and another four block assists.

Holy Names, which entered the match on a hot streak of its own having won 13 of its previous 16 matches, used a balanced attack led by Rachel Vartarian. The freshman middle blocker finished with seven kills on 12 attempts and was one of three Hawks with seven kills or more. Meanwhile, Cal Pac player of the year Ashley Nickell, a junior outside hitter, was held to five kills on 17 attempts.

"Our blocking and our floor defense, I thought we did a nice job with that tonight for the most part," SOU head coach Josh Rohlfing said.

Southern Oregon buried Holy Names decisively in the third game, but the first two games were competitive.

In the opener, the Raiders scored four straight points, capped by Renee Yomtob's ace, to take a 21-16 lead, but later needed a kill by Bartling and a big block by Swetland — against Nickell — to eke out a two-point win.

Bartling's smash off a beautiful backward set by Stone tilted the momentum back in SOU's favor, and Swetland smothered Nickell moments later, drawing one of the loudest ovations of the night.

Stone finished with 35 assists and six digs five days after being named the Cascade Conference player of the year for the third time.

"I think the real difference was just experience," Holy Names head coach Dwight Combs said. "We haven't been here before. They're a good team, I'm not going to take anything away from them. But honestly, we didn't handle the situation — the situation handled us."

The second game followed a similar path, with the Raiders jumping out to leads of 17-9 and 21-12 before the Hawks came alive. This time, Holy Names scored seven straight and nine of 10 to creep back to within 22-21. The Raiders committed four attack errors during that stretch, and also lost a point on a ball-handling miscue.

Southern Oregon woke up just in time to win the final three points, clinching once again on a block, this time by Leah Bergstrom, who finished with nine kills and three block assists.

"I guess it was tough trying to react to what they were doing and trying to figure it out as fast as we could," Bartling said of SOU's struggles to put Holy Names away.

The third game was all SOU. The Raiders, whose attack improved as the match wore on, hit .269 in Game 3 while holding the Hawks to minus-.086, and committed only three attack errors compared to the Hawks' 13.

Southern Oregon won eight straight points on Stone's serve to go up 19-9, and this time had no trouble pulling away, clinching on a spike to the floor by Bartling, a former North Medford High star.

At Sioux City, Southern Oregon will be trying to best its ninth-place showings of 2001, '02 and '04. In their four previous trips to the final site, where 24 teams converge, the Raiders have never advanced beyond pool play into the final single-elimination bracket.

Rohlfing wasn't ecstatic with his team's energy level Saturday, but said that won't be a problem in Iowa.

"This is probably one of the best teams in terms of where we started and where we're going," Rohlfing said. "I feel like this might have been a little lull in that road, but I'm really excited for what we have the opportunity to do. I think once we get there, you look at those other teams and you're either going to sink or swim. So I'm excited. I think we're going to be great."

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