The last time the Southern Oregon University volleyball team made the national tournament, Taylor Ristvedt was a young freshman simply there to soak the experience in.
“I was just there to watch,” said Ristvedt, who redshirted in 2015.
Three years later, Ristvedt’s role is much, much different.
The Raiders are back at the NAIA National Championship tournament after missing out in 2016 and 2017, and Ristvedt, a powerful left-handed right-sided hitter, has developed into one of SOU’s best and most important players. So much so that the kind of 2018 season that the redshirt junior from Portland turned in earned her Cascade Conference Player of the Year honors, the first time an SOU player won the award in nearly a decade.
“Being able to contribute this time compared to freshman year, it’s going to be such a different experience,” Ristvedt said. “It’s going to be awesome.”
Ristvedt started the season with an incredibly strong showing in tournament play at William Jessup University in Rocklin, Calif., and never let up.
The results both propelled Ristvedt to being named CCC Attacker of the Week — the first of three times she’s won the award this season — and what she was able to do the next three months.
And, more importantly, it helped SOU (26-3) — which opens up the national tournament on Tuesday against Jamestown (N.D.) — capture a share of the CCC regular-season title and celebrate a conference tournament championship on its home court at Lithia Motors Pavilion earlier this month.
“It’s been amazing,” Ristvedt said. “Without the team success I wouldn’t have any individual success, so just knowing that we’re all playing together for each other has made what I’ve achieved possible.”
The rise to the cream of the crop in the Cascade Conference has been a three-year journey for Ristvedt after her redshirt year.
A lot like the team as a whole, the foundation for the success that has come along this season was built in the previous two years.
Consider Ristvedt’s head coach, Josh Rohlfing, as one of the people who hasn’t been surprise to see her rise to this level.
“With Taylor coming in, we felt like her ceiling was really high and it was just a matter of her feeling confident and fine-tuning some basic skills,” Rohlfing said. “So to see her make this jump to player of the year, it really wasn’t a surprise or a stretch for me. I felt like I was going to be able to see that come to fruition at some point in her career.
“She’s just a phenomenal worker, and when you have one of your best players that is also one of your hardest workers, you’re bound to have success in terms of accolades. I felt like that was coming down the road, and it was just a matter of ‘when,’ not ‘if.’”
The results speak for themselves.
Ristvedt ranks fifth in the conference with 3.32 kills per set, and Her hitting percentage of .353 is fourth in the conference, with SOU having three of the top four spots — which, by no surprise, is a big reason why the Raiders are the Cascade’s most efficient team.
“It’s her consistency. She’s consistently good offensively, she’s a great blocker, but she’s added a dimension to her hitting,” Rohlfing said. “She doesn’t just swing to one spot; she has so many tools in her tool belt that she’s made it almost impossible to stop her. If you have a night and you stop her, it’s probably something to do with her than it is you. That’s an attribute to what she’s done in the offseason, and she’s worked her butt off to get to this point.”
Based on how well Ristvedt has played this season, few teams have truly stopped her.
To do that, Ristvedt keeps things in perspective. To get the big prizes, like a CCC title or a deep run at nationals, the small stuff has to be taken care of first.
She doesn’t allow herself to get too far ahead of anything.
Essentially, you can’t take care of tomorrow’s requirements unless you first attack today.
“It’s mostly just been a mindset and not thinking beyond the upcoming practice or the upcoming game and just keeping it as a small-scale focus,” Ristvedt said. “When you think about everything or how many games you have left to play or what you have coming up, it can be very overwhelming and you can become flustered and tired. Just keeping your eye on what’s next and going hard for your team and staying motivated what you know how to do for those around you.”
Ristvedt has learned plenty since first arriving in Ashland three years ago. And, she admits, she’s still learning despite what she’s accomplished thus far.
With more experience at the collegiate level comes more knowledge.
It’s not just the development into the player, but also the mental aspect that has improved as well.
And as Southern Oregon makes its return to the national tournament, the Raiders know they can rely on the left arm of Ristvedt more often than not.
“Oh, everything, everything ... everything is different. Josh, I’m sure, would say the same thing,” Ristvedt said. “It’s usually the same for most people because you’re coming in from a high school team where you’re one of the top players and you’re in a setting where everyone was that top player. I guess I was just a little intimidated and it took me a little while to find that next level and playing at what I thought was 100 percent and going beyond that because that’s your true 100 percent.
“Being more inward and quiet to now more aggressive and going hard every time, being outward and being a leader ... it’s night and day, really, and it’s just crazy to think about how far I’ve come and how far everyone else has come as well.”
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.