Raiders sweep Eagles to set up tourney final vs. Coyotes

Southern Oregon and College of Idaho will square off one more time with an automatic berth to the NAIA National Championships on the line.

As if there was ever any doubt.

Hours after the 13th-ranked Coyotes squashed Concordia in straight games Friday the 16th-ranked Raiders held up their end of the bargain by pummeling Northwest in three, setting up a third meeting between the league rivals for the Cascade Conference tournament championship tonight at McNeal Pavilion.

The Raiders (21-3) and Coyotes (22-4) split the season series, with each team earning a sweep on its home floor, and finished tied atop the final regular season standings for the third time in the last four years. The team that pulls out tonight's rubber match will snag the league's automatic berth to nationals, while the loser will have to hope for an at-large bid.

"We want to win and we're going to do whatever it takes to get there," Southern Oregon junior outside hitter Sarah Holgen said. "We've been waiting for this."

The Raiders didn't leave anything to chance Friday. Playing in front of its largest home crowd of the season (643 fans), Southern hit .330 as a team against the second-best blocking squad in the conference and surged to big leads in each game on its way to a 25-17, 25-19, 25-15 victory.

The easy win was SOU's ninth straight, and second over Northwest in six days. The Raiders also increased their consecutive games won streak to 24 in a row dating back to Oct. 9.

Holgen and junior middle blocker Megan Bartling combined for 30 kills, with Holgen leading the way with 16 on 25 attempts and Bartling adding 14 on 19 swings. Senior setter Lindsey Stone was the catalyst with 46 assists. Becky Johnstone had 15 digs and Leanne Stennett 13.

Senior outside hitter Lauren Holtz led the Eagles with 11 kills, but she needed 31 attacks to get there. Northwest sophomore setter Lauryn Ernster had 26 assists and sophomore defensive specialist Heather Shulke added 12 digs.

In the battle of strength versus strength, the Raiders' hard-hitting attack overwhelmed the Eagles front-row defense, which entered the match boasting two of the league's top four blockers — Sarah Stoker and Kacie Simpson. Stoker and Simpson combined for just two blocks and four block assists Friday, as the Stone-led SOU offense picked apart the Eagles with a deadly combination of back-row attacks, quick sets and crosscourt passes.

"(Holgen) played great, (Stone) got her free," SOU head coach Josh Rohlfing, adding that the Raiders' balance makes them difficult to defend.

"Now they can all go off, and that's just fundamental for what you're trying to do. I'm just really impressed with how our hitters played, definitely."

The Raiders set the tone on the very first point, an emphatic down-the-line spike by Holgen that hit nothing but floor off a perfect feed by Stone. The former Ashland High teammates were just getting started; they hooked up six more times in the first game alone to help the Raiders jump out to a 16-9 lead.

Game 2 represented the Eagles' best chance to make a match of it. They managed to stay in contention through the first 26 points, tying the game at 13-all on an attack error by Bartling. But the Raiders followed with a flurry, winning four straight points and seven of nine to seize a 20-15 lead on another Holgen slam.

The Eagles fought back to within three points at 21-18, but the Raiders closed out strong with a momentum-grabbing spike by senior right side Leah Bergstrom and later the game-clinching kill by Bartling.

"They're certainly a great team and we just didn't quite have enough to get back at them," Northwest head coach Jessie Dietrich said. "Offensively, they're very strong and that eventually just wore us down."

The third game was more like the first, with Southern Oregon using an early 10-3 rally to go up 16-9, then cruising from there. Bartling's three kills in a five-point span led the way, as the Raiders made it quick and painless by hitting .424 in the final frame, its best clip of the night.

Now, it's finally time for the highly anticipated rematch between SOU and College of Idaho. The Coyotes won the last meeting 25-13, 25-16, 28-26, Oct. 8 in Caldwell, Idaho, but since then the Raiders have dropped just one game and are currently playing their best volleyball of the season.

"They've got some really good pieces and they're every bit as physical as we are," Rohlfing said of the Coyotes. "So, really it's going to come down to passing and serving.

"I think it's going to be a pretty impressive match, and if both teams play up to their level this could be one of the epic Southern Oregon-College of Idaho matches."

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