SOU women streak into Cascade Conference opener

Lynn Kennedy isn't about to make any bold predictions. His Southern Oregon women's basketball team was ranked fourth in the Cascade Collegiate Conference preseason coaches' poll, and the ninth-year head coach is fine with that.

But that doesn't mean Kennedy has not been impressed with what he's seen so far. To him, the Raiders proved during a mid-November road trip to Lewis-Clark State that they are probably ahead of schedule heading into Friday's CCC opener against Concordia. The Raiders lost a hard-fought game to the NAIA Division I Warriors 82-76 — still their only setback of the season — but showed their moxie the following night in a 17-point rout of CSU-San Marcos.

"That was the turning point," said Kennedy, who has led the Raiders to seven winning seasons and two NAIA Division II national tournament appearances. "That's when we realized that we can play with one of the best teams in the nation on their home court and turn around the next night and beat a team like CSU-San Marcos. We went into the season knowing that we're a really young team and our nonconference schedule was really tough, but we seem to find a way to win."

They certainly have. Despite losing their top two scorers from a year ago — Melissa Sweat transferred and Alexi Smith graduated — the Raiders (9-1) have darted out of the gate with surprising dexterity. They started the season with four wins in a row before the setback at Lewis-Clark State, then promptly reeled off five more wins to head into league play on a hot streak and ranked in the NAIA Division II top 25 coaches' poll — they're No. 19 — for the first time in four years.

What's been the key to their success? So far, balance and chemistry.

Five Raiders are averaging double figures in scoring, including three sophomore starters — last year's CCC freshman of the year, 6-foot-2 post Carly Meister, junior college transfer guard Kristen Schoenherr and point guard Ashley Claussen.

Meister has picked up right where she left off and leads the team in scoring (15.4 points per game) and rebounding (8.7). Schoenherr, last season's NWAACC MVP at Centralia College in Centralia, Wash., is averaging 14.8 points and shooting 48 percent from the floor. Claussen, who started 30 of 31 games last season, is averaging 10.7 points and a team-high 6.2 assists.

Add to that former Ashland High star Allison Gida, who enters her senior season, and another promising junior college transfer, sharpshooting junior guard Bree Park, and it's easy to see why the Raiders have put up 83 points and 19 assists per game.

"It's probably the most balanced team we've had in four or five years," said Kennedy, who guided the Raiders to a 22-10 record last season, including a 10-8 fifth-place showing in the CCC. "I think it's going to be hard for teams to guard us."

As usual, Kennedy wants the Raiders to push the tempo. This season more than most, SOU appears to have a roster capable of capitalizing on that strategy.

Meister is a big target in the post who can also run the floor and finish, Park (13-for-29 from 3-point land) and Claussen (7-for-15) are both deadly outside shooters and Gida, who according to Kennedy has emerged as a team leader, has always been at her best in the open floor. The results — the Raiders have cracked the 90-point barrier five times and are shooting 45 percent — have given Kennedy hope that perhaps the right mix of talent, tempo and intensity on defense will allow SOU to skip the anticipated growing pains.

Of course, this is hardly the first Kennedy-coached squad that has put up big numbers on offense. So one of the keys, he says, will the Raiders' focus at the other end of the floor. So far, so good. The Raiders are holding opponents to 37 percent shooting and are cleaning up the boards after those misses, outrebounding opponents by a substantial margin, 51-36 on average.

"We've kind of picked up that mindset this year," Kennedy said. "We're a little bit tougher. We're outworking teams and we have more talent, too, and when you put that together you can see by the scores what the outcome is. But we have to keep that mentality every game. We've got to stay focused and keep working, and it starts with our intensity on defense."

After Concordia, SOU hosts Warner Pacific on Saturday then gets two weeks to prepare for its biggest early-season test, the long road trip north for games against College of Idaho, the coaches' pick to win the Cascade Conference, and Eastern Oregon, picked to finish second.

Southern Oregon hosts 16th-ranked Oregon Tech on Jan. 18, and College of Idaho and Eastern Oregon visit Ashland the following week in what promises to be a revealing seven-day buzzsaw.

But first Concordia (1-5), a team that was picked to finish seventh in the conference which enters Friday's league opener on the heels of three straight losses.

"They play hard, they're well coached and it's league play now," Kennedy said of Concordia. "You have to play at a different level, so with our younger players that's what we're trying to teach. Now the journey begins. I think we're ready to play."

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