Raiders bow out at nationals

The best season in Southern Oregon women's volleyball history ended with a anticlimactic thud Friday when fourth-ranked Embry-Riddle steamrolled the 10th-ranked Raiders, 25-17, 25-11, 23-25, 25-11, in the first round of the NAIA National Championships tournament in the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa.

Two days after clinching a spot in the final 12-team, single-elimination bracket for the first time in program history, the Raiders stumbled through the first two sets, pulled out the third then self-destructed in the fourth, committing five consecutive attack errors during Embry-Riddle's nine-point, match-ending run.

"We just didn't play with any kind of fire or emotion, and that's what I thought was the key to us being successful today," SOU head coach Josh Rohlfing said. "I don't think we had it today. It's unfortunate because that's not the way we wanted to go out."

Even with the letdown, the Raiders' postseason run, which included two pool play victories, represented a major breakthrough for SOU volleyball. The Raiders (23-6) had never advanced beyond pool play in five previous trips to nationals, but quickly put that to rest this year with consecutive wins over No. 14 Vanguard and host Morningside.

But against Embry-Riddle of Florida, the Raiders only briefly found that magic in the third set before fizzling down the stretch.

In the fourth, Embry-Riddle (30-6), which later in the day suffered a three-set quarterfinal loss to No. 2 Texas of Brownsville, won seven straight points to extend its 6-4 lead to 13-4 and never let Southern Oregon get closer than five again.

The Raiders floundered late and wound up with nearly as many attack errors (35) as kills (39).

Senior middle blocker Megan Bartling had 14 kills and senior outside hitter Sarah Holgen had 13 kills and 17 digs for the Raiders, who managed only seven putaways in the final frame.

"We just weren't connecting," Rohlfing said. "What ended up happening was we were trying to get it to Sarah and Megan because they were having some success and we probably over-forced it a few times when those two weren't ready. Toward the end, it was like watching a wounded animal. There's not much you can do for them."

Jordan Holcomb had 15 kills and seven digs and Emily Jacobson and Abby Hall had 10 kills apiece to lead the Eagles, who handed Southern Oregon a costly pool play loss at nationals last season.

Desperate to avoid a straight-set shellacking, the Raiders rediscovered their game, if only briefly, in the third set. A kill by Holgen, off an assist by Caryn Westrick, kicked off an 8-3 Raider run that gave SOU a 9-6 lead. The Raiders never fell behind in the set again, although the Eagles tied it at 15-all and 16-all and stayed within striking distance until Holgen's set-clinching kill.

Westrick was on the other end of that one, too, and finished with a team-high 23 assists.

Rohlfing was hoping the third-set victory would spark a momentum shift that would carry the Raiders to a full-fledged comeback. That never came close to happening.

"We looked very smooth in that third set and we were executing," he said. "We had just changed our defense and adapted some on the offensive end, and I was like, 'Hey, this is working, and now we just have to keep the pressure on them,' and that's exactly what we didn't do.

"(Embry-Riddle) did not make mistakes. They ball-controlled very well, and their defense was really, really good. They just kept us working, and the more we worked the more mistakes we made."

Letdowns like that were a rarity for the Raiders this season. After losing four of their first 10 matches, they rolled through the rest of league play, won the Cascade Conference tournament and roared into nationals riding a 15-match winning streak.

Southern Oregon will look different next year. Four seniors will graduate off the team, all major contributors.

"I think there's going to have to be some evaluation after things settle down," Rohlfing said. "We lost some key cogs in the machine and we're never going to replace them, but we can definitely find different ingredients. This program still has incredible talent."

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