Raiders brace for crucial rematch with Coll. of Idaho

With Saturday's much-anticipated rematch against No. 8-ranked College of Idaho looming large, the Southern Oregon women's volleyball team enters tonight's match against Eastern Oregon with a clear-cut goal: make Saturday mean something.

The situation is simple. The 20th-ranked Raiders can close the gap atop the Cascade Conference standings between itself and College of Idaho (formerly Albertson College) with a win Saturday night. But first, SOU (17-4 overall, 11-1 CC) must hold serve against the dangerous Mountaineers (12-6, 9-3), who are riding a seven-match win streak and are one of just two teams in the conference besides College of Idaho (15-6, 12-0) to take a game off the Raiders.

For that reason, SOU head coach Josh Rohlfing is confident his team will not look past the Mounties.

"I think it's human nature to think about the team that's undefeated on Saturday before you play the team that's in third place in the conference," Rohlfing said prior to Thursday's practice, "but I think that we have a pretty mature group here that understands what's at stake. Saturday night means nothing if we lose (tonight)."

Both matches begin at 7 p.m. at McNeal Pavilion.

Saturday's collision between two of the hottest teams in the nation holds plenty of promise. Both teams are red hot (the Raiders have won 12 straight and the Coyotes 13), both consistently pummel opponents with vicious attacks and both have a history of success at the regional level. The match also features the league's top four most accurate hitters, its top three blockers, its No. — setter (SOU's Lindsey Stone) and its most prolific defensive specialist (College of Idaho's Catherine Everist).

So yes, the Raiders admit, they have ' Yotes on the brain.

"Honestly, at the beginning of the season this team wanted to win a conference championship and we also wanted to beat (College of Idaho)," SOU libero Emily Stone said with a smile. "So, it's really important to us."

The Coyotes had their way with Southern the last time the two teams met, winning 30-25, 30-20, 30-22, Sept. 7 at Caldwell, Idaho. The Raiders played that match without senior outside hitter Jaclyn Hamilton-Smith, who ranks 13th in the conference in kills, but the lopsided scores suggested that even a healthy SOU team may have a hard time competing with COI.

But times have changed. Since that day, the Raiders have been nearly untouchable, winning 10 of their next 12 matches in straight games. The impressive run, they say, has more to do with team bonding and learning how to play with each other than anything else.

"I think we've improved immensely," senior outside hitter Shanna Claflin said. "We're a totally different team, we have a lot more chemistry, we've gotten to know each other a lot better on and off the court and we're more comfortable with each other."

Emily Stone, who ranks sixth in the conference in digs per game, agreed.

"At that point in the season we were still learning who we were, what our identity was," she said, "and I think there were a lot of things like trust issues on the court that were not figured out yet."

Now, the Raiders must figure out how to stop, or at least slow down, the powerful College of Idaho offense. The Coyotes are led by Kristin Henning and Katie Hogue, the league's No. 2 and No. — most consistent hitters (SOU's Richelle Millsap tops that list). It's a combination that spearheads the league's top-rated attack in both percentage (.304) and kills per game (16.22).

Hogue and Henning also shine on defense, ranking No. — and No. 2, respectively, in blocks per game. As a team, College of Idaho ranks No. — in every major statistical category. Right behind the 'Yotes in hitting percentage, opponents hitting percentage, assists and kills are the Raiders, who expect that they'll have to play their very best to pull off the upset.

"What do we have to lose?" Emily Stone said. "They're a great team, we respect that, but if we play our game it's going to be a great matchup.

"We have every reason to be confident. I think we're ready."

Sports editor can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or joe.

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