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Southern Oregon University sophomore Elliott Cook attempts to slam the ball past Walla Walla defenders during a match at Lithia Motors Pavilion in October. (PHOTO BY: LARRY STAUTH JR)

Penza: SOU volleyball delivered on preseason aspirations

What started in the final days of July nearly made it to the first day of December.

Along the way, the Southern Oregon University volleyball team, one that was one of the best in both the Cascade Conference and the entirety of the NAIA, was able to put forth a season that they had been hoping to put forth ever since the 2017 campaign ended.

The preseason talk around this team, one that had so many players back from the past two years, was to get back into the mix for a conference title and put an end to the two-year absence at the national tournament.

Twenty-nine wins later, a top 10 national ranking later, and I think we can sit here a few days after the Raiders’ season came to a close in the quarterfinals of the NAIA Volleyball National Championship and say that it was a resounding success.

The Raiders talked the talk.

And their play certainly walked the walk.

(Or is it spiked the competition? I don’t know.)

When I first met up with the team after preseason practices started in July — seriously, they were the first SOU team to get going — head coach Josh Rohlfing and his veteran core group of players didn’t hide their aspirations for the upcoming season.

The previous two seasons had seen the Raiders finish around the .500 mark after last making it to the national tournament in 2015. They viewed the 2016 and 2017 seasons, ones where they were incredibly young and inexperienced at the collegiate level, as the foundation to make the jump back into the conference’s best. (Which is saying something based on how competitive the Cascade Conference is.)

“The main concept is improving every time we get on the court — and that’s what we’ve done for the last two years,” Rohlfing said back in late July. “I felt like two years ago we were so green and the focus was to be the best we could be by the end of the season and we really did accomplish that. The record was no indication of how far we got, I didn’t think, in that it was the first year of the youth movement. Last year, the effort and the improvement on pace and tempo and style, it wasn’t measurable and wasn’t resulting in wins, per se. We did get a couple more wins, but you could really see that fundamental base line move up — and I felt like we did the same thing this offseason.

“We’ll see once we get to matches what we are, but to us, we know we’ve made huge strides. That’s our ultimate goal, to step up the level every match.”

The Raiders most certainly stepped up their level this season.

And a lot of the time, they were dominant along the way.

Of SOU’s 29 wins, 21 of them were of the straight-set variety, including the Raiders’ first eight and 12 of their first 14 matches of the season as they jumped out to a 14-0 record before suffering their first loss of 2018 to Northwest (Wash.) on Sept. 21.

On top of the 29 wins — the program’s highest win total in 25 years — SOU made it to the final eight of at the final site of the national tournament for the first time ever and recorded its highest single-season winning (.853) in school history. The Raiders also made it out of pool play for the second time in their 10 national tournament appearances.

And don’t forget this fact: SOU won both the CCC’s regular-season and tournament titles this season, the latter coming on its home court at Lithia Motors Pavilion. (The Raiders went 14-1 at home this season, by the way, making their new gym an absolute fortress as they played their first matches on campus since 2015.)

They wanted to get back into the CCC’s elite, and did just that.

They wanted to get back to the national tournament, and did just that.

As a result, the 2018 season became arguably the best season SOU volleyball has ever had.

And then when you take into account who the Raiders have coming back next season ... this isn’t just a one-year deal.

The bar was raised even before the Raiders played a game in 2018 simply because of how they felt like they’ve improved and who they had on their roster.

SOU not just reached it. The Raiders exceeded it.

And hey, nearly taking the eventual national champion Park to a fifth set isn’t anything to scoff at, either.

Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.

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