Raiders set to host league tournament

Southern Oregon head volleyball coach Josh Rohlfing was in the middle of answering a question about this weekend's Cascade Conference tournament when he was interrupted by something that made him burst out laughing.

It was his team, parading into McNeal Pavilion decked out in grass skirts, tank tops, sunglasses, etc. — all set for a day in the Bahamas. The Raiders were eager to begin "Tropical Wednesday," a one-time practice twist conjured up by assistant coach Jessica Walters.

The goal in part was to lighten the mood and release a little tension prior to Friday's semifinal match against Northwest, a draw that could be considered a day at the beach compared to what lies ahead should the 16th-ranked Raiders advance to the final — No. 13 College of Idaho.

Second-seeded College of Idaho (21-4) will face third-seeded Concordia (19-8) in the tourney-opener, 4 p.m. Friday at McNeal Pavilion. Top-seeded Southern Oregon (20-3) will take on fourth-seeded Northwest (16-9) later that night in the other semifinal, scheduled to start at 7 p.m.

The championship match is set for 3 p.m. Saturday.

"I think it's going to be fairly easy to keep them focused, just because we have a group that understands what it's about, has been there," said Rohlfing, when asked how the Raiders will avoid looking ahead to a possible rematch with College of Idaho. "Their main goal isn't necessarily to win the conference tournament or to win the national tournament or anything like that, it's to win the next match we play."

The Raiders could be forgiven for feeling pressure considering what's at stake.

If Southern Oregon, which finished tied with C of I in the final CCC standings but earned the right to host the tournament by coming out ahead in the tie-breaker (games lost), goes 2-0 this weekend it will earn an automatic berth to the NAIA National Championships and possibly a jump-ahead to the final 24-team tournament, which begins Nov. 30 in Sioux City, Iowa. On the other hand, if Northwest somehow pulls off the upset Friday night, only an at-large bid to nationals would keep the Raiders' season going.

If Las Vegas worked out the odds, the Raiders would be the favorites to take the tournament title, but not by much. Southern Oregon and College of Idaho split the season series 1-1, and both went 4-0 against Northwest and Concordia.

Closer examination of the head-to-head matches between SOU and C of I reveals only one distinct advantage which one team holds over the other, and it belongs to both rivals: home court advantage. Each team rolled against the other on its home floor, winning in straight games. That's good news for SOU, which on Friday will be hosting its first postseason match since last year's heartbreaking five-game loss to Lewis-Clark State.

"I think that we'll maintain the mentality that we've had all year," SOU senior setter Lindsey Stone said. "We've really focused on one step ahead. It sounds like a sports cliché, but the next step is always the most important and Northwest is going to provide a battle."

The Raiders enter the tournament on a tear, having reeled off eight straight wins since falling to the Coyotes on Oct. 8, including the last seven in straight games.

During that run, SOU surged ahead in virtually every major statistical category that the league tracks. In league play, SOU is tops in hitting percentage (.255), assists per game (12.95), kills per game (13.89) and blocks per game (2.88).

The Raiders have a collection of players who may be considered the best at their position in the conference, and another who ranks among the best in the nation. That latter is Stone, SOU's two-time All-American who's averaging 11.2 assists per game, the fifth-best mark in the country and tops in the CCC.

Stone excels at both disguising the direction of her sets and placing the ball with surgical precision, a combination that often yield's favorable match-ups for SOU's hitters.

Stone's teammates have made a habit of exploiting those match-ups. Two of the league's top three most efficient hitters are Raiders — junior middle blocker Megan Bartling has a .417 attack percentage, and senior right side Leah Bergstrom ranks third at .312.

Then there's junior outside hitter Sarah Holgen, who ranks No. 1 in kills (4.21 per game) and 10th in digs (3.53 per game).

"I think we've just decided to buckled down and just focus on the things that we needed to focus on," Bartling said of SOU's late-season surge. "At the beginning of the year we did, but not as much as we're doing now, because of how much that we want to win. It's pushing us every day in practice to become better."

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