The 875 spectators in attendance on opening night at Lithia Motors Pavilion got their money’s worth.
And even on an somewhat off night for the hometown Raiders, their undefeated start to the 2018 season will stretch into the weekend.
Five games up and the No. 13-nationally ranked Southern Oregon University volleyball team still has yet to lose a set, as the Raiders opened up their new gym and the Raider Invitational with a hard-fought sweep (25-22, 25-23, 25-22) of Lewis-Clark State (Idaho) on Friday night.
“It just made everything more worthwhile just being able to open the gym,” SOU junior outside hitter Taylor Ristvedt said. “I think of it as a historic event just because who knows the next time we’re going to have another gym or anything like that, so just being a part of a team that was able to open with a game here was super cool.
“The win was cool, but I’m excited to come out here tomorrow and really just play to our full potential and show everyone what Raider volleyball really is.”
Whether it was a sense of relief from veteran SOU head coach Josh Rohlfing that the opening night tension is out of the way or the fact that he was happy with how his team was able to close out an emotionally-charged night, a smile was there come the final point being recorded.
So was the knowledge that his team improved to 5-0 on the young season and heads into this afternoon’s 3 p.m. matchup with William Jessup University (Calif.) knowing that some of the Raiders’ best ball this year has come against their next two opponents.
“We played really tight all night, and that’s not the way we’ve been playing, so that was a little unnerving,” Rohlfing said. “All in all, though, shoot, we fought through it. That was a good LC State team and to win in three is really a great thing. It’s pretty hard to anticipate the amount of nerves and playing without our captain and the heart of our team (Kiley Barcroft).”
SOU trailed early in all three sets, but used late comebacks in the final two to close out the match.
The Raiders never fell behind in the opening set after tying the score at 8-all, with a run of four straight points that saw two kills from Ristvedt and another from Makayla Hoyt put SOU up 10-8.
The Raiders hit .182 in the opening set, easily their lowest mark of the season after starting out red hot in tournament play at William Jessup last week.
As the night went on, those numbers improved.
But things didn’t get any easier.
LC State (2-2 overall) put SOU’s streak of consecutive sets won to the test as Friday night went on.
The Raiders were able to eliminate the Warriors’ 23-21 lead in the second set when they got kills from Hoyt and Dani Johnson to quickly flip the score in SOU’s favor. Another kill, this time from Ristvedt, ended the second set.
The final set was the same story, as Southern Oregon used another late rally to eek things out and keep its streak of sweeps to open the season alive.
The Warriors held another two-point lead, this time 21-19, before the Raiders’ charge arrived.
A monster Nila Lukens kill tied it at 21, the beginning of a final stretch where SOU recorded five of the final six points to close the match out.
Rohlfing said the late-set magic was all about SOU’s experience.
“Finally we’re able to rely on some experience and key experience,” Rohlfing said. “You’ve got Taylor, you’ve got Makayla who always seems to come up with a big play when we need it. Nila had some really big swings. It was just really neat that some of the experience that we’ve been waiting for these last two years, they’ve been in the pipeline and they really showed out tonight.”
Hoyt finished with a team-high 11 kills, while Ristvedt added nine and both Johnson and Lukens recorded eight. Natalie James finished with 23 assists, as SOU hit .308 and .281, respectively, in the final two sets.
“I think it just shows that when we’re on, there’s just no stopping us,” Ristvedt said in regard to a straight-set win while her team still didn’t play at their best. “We’re on the same page, we’re all going hard, doing the same thing and working toward the same goal. When that happens, no team can stop us. We saw that in California in the last game against William Jessup and that’s why we’re all super excited to face them and see what they bring in that week since we played them.”
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.