Raiders pumped for season opener

Change can be a good thing, even if it's forced upon you.

That's the attitude that the Southern Oregon volleyball team will take into its 2009 campaign, which begins with Friday's Raider Classic opener against Concordia. The opening serve is scheduled for 11 a.m. at McNeal Pavilion. The four-team tourney will also feature two-time defending national champion and top-ranked Fresno Pacific, as well as Oregon Tech.

The Raiders, who were first in the "others receiving votes" category in the NAIA preseason coaches poll and second overall in the Cascade Conference preseason poll, will have to overcome a couple major blows in order to reclaim the league title they last won in 2007. Maggie Rivers, the 2008 CCC libero of the year, has left the team for medical reasons, and the team found out only weeks ago that two-time All-American Lindsey Stone, who is also the two-time defending CCC player of the year, will redshirt this season to deal with a medical issue of her own — Stone was fainting about 10 times a day, but says the mystery was recently solved and she's now aiming for a 2010 return.

Those two losses combined with the graduation of all-league hitter Mia Wortel puts Southern Oregon behind the eight ball to start the season, but head coach Josh Rohlfing has compensated by installing a 6-2 offense, which he believes will take the pressure off the setters and make the Raiders tougher to defend.

"It would be ludicrous to suggest that it doesn't affect us at all," admitted Rohlfing, when asked about the loss of Stone. "But at the same time it's not going to put us under like I think a lot of people feel. Lindsey is an integral part of our team, but she isn't the team."

Stone's temporary departure has sparked a three-player battle between Dolores Christensen (5-foot-9 senior), Caryn Westrick (5-6 freshman) and Angela Spieker (5-9 redshirt freshman) for the two starting setter positions, though all three are likely to see plenty of playing time as the Raiders work out the kinks of the new offense.

A steep learning curve is expected — Rohlfing said it will take about a month to work out the kinks — but already the switch has infused the team with the excitement that comes with any early-season experiment.

"I'm so excited for it," SOU junior middle blocker Heather Porter said. "We still are really new, we have a lot of things to work on, but we're so solid in every aspect of the game and when we play with confidence we can beat anybody.

"It's going really good. Everyone's learning something new this year, not just the freshmen, so everyone's in the same boat in terms of learning new things and trying to apply them to the games."

Porter is one of several hard hitters on a roster loaded with offensive potential. Megan Bartling (sophomore middle blocker), Leah Bergstrom (junior right side), Sarah Holgen (sophomore outside hitter) and Leanne Stennett (junior outside hitter) figure to give the Raiders one of the most potent lineups in the conference, and freshman Chelsea Hartman, according to Rohlfing, is already showing signs of being an impact player.

"(Stennett), (Holgen) and (Hartman) are probably three of the most flamboyant hitters you'll see," Rohlfing said. "They're explosive jumpers, they're athletic and they get after it. It's going to be a fun group."

The Raiders won't have to wait long to find out what it takes to compete at the national level. Southern Oregon will host Fresno Pacific at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Though both teams will probably be experimenting with different lineups, Rohlfing is excited to see how his team reacts to the pressure of squaring off against the nation's premier program. Last year in the Raider Classic, the Raiders were waxed by Fresno in straight games.

"It would be great to be able to play with them," Rohlfing said. "I think we're a little more mature than we were last year as a group and I hope that we'll see it as more of a competition this year. Last year it was more, 'Let's see what they're about. This year I hope it's more about, 'Hey, let's test them, let's see what their mettle is.'"

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