In just three short weeks, Lithia Motors Pavilion will open its doors for a competitive sporting event for the very first time since construction was completed back in the spring.
It’s been a date that has been circled on the Southern Oregon University volleyball team’s calendar ever since their schedule got put together months ago. And on Thursday, the countdown to both the 2018 season’s opening day and the grand opening of the athletic department’s new crown jewel officially began with the start of preseason practice.
“We’ve been in here since the spring, but it feels almost surreal to be in here and have a home because we’ve been floundering the last couple of years,” SOU senior defensive specialist Kiley Barcroft said. “We’re so excited for that grand opening and welcome everybody in to our brand new gym.”
Before the Raiders’ can officially christen their new gym against Lewis-Clark State (Idaho) on Friday, Aug. 24, SOU travels to Rocklin, Calif., for its season-opening weekend, one where it will play four games within a 36-hour period beginning with the University of Antelope Valley (Calif.) on Wednesday, Aug. 15.
But the reality of playing on campus is something that is hard to avoid after spending the past two seasons at Ashland High’s North Mountain Gymnasium.
“It just feels more like a community and a culture that we’re creating because we talk about culture a lot on our team,” SOU senior setter Natalie James said. “It’s so nice having our own locker room, our own gym and being so close to campus. It’s just really nice to have our own place.”
The Raiders finished 15-11 overall and in fifth place in the Cascade Conference with a 12-8 record a year ago. And of that team that finished four wins better than in 2016, the grand total of players lost to graduation is zero
That means SOU has virtually its entire crew back from a roster that was filled with freshmen and sophomores.
It is that experience and cohesion that Southern Oregon is going to be relying on more often than not, and a dynamic the Raiders hope pushes them into conference title contention.
Add in a recruiting class that head coach Josh Rohlfing feels can make an impact at a variety of positions and the Raiders’ reason for optimism about 2018’s prospects are clearly evident.
One of those recruits is Ashland native Myla Norvell, who transferred to SOU after playing her freshman season at Western Oregon, appearing in 23 of the Wolves’ 27 games in 2017.
“We spent so much time in the offseason vetting what we needed, and we felt like we needed competition at every arena and every category and we also needed voices. We have a great contingent of just sold work ethic and commitment, but we felt like we needed more voices to raise the level of competition in the gym,” Rohlfing said. “With these new people, we’ve done that in every position. They all have an insatiable work ethic, it’s insane.”
Of course, preseason practice getting underway is only a natural time for optimism and hope about the season ahead.
But, knowing what the Raiders did a year ago and knowing what they have back, the confidence is there that a jump back into the group of conference title contenders isn’t all that far off.
“My favorite part is seeing the growth and being able to see where we were just six months ago or so to all through winter and spring and where we are right now,” James said. “We’re just really ready to go.”
It’s been three years since Southern Oregon advanced to the NAIA national tournament — a 2015 campaign that saw the Raiders record 26 wins, one of the highest single-season totals in school history, and bow out at nationals in pool play.
The Raiders have won 14 and 15 games, respectively, in the two seasons since that trip to Iowa. But a season that finished over the .500 mark both overall and in conference play despite a relatively young roster is something that Rohlfing hopes will be the foundation for another step forward this season.
“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. “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.”
And in a very competitive conference that saw four teams advance to and have success at the national tournament, taking continuous steps forward is almost a necessity if you want to compete for a CCC title.
“(Camaraderie) is a huge part of it because we know each other already. We’re all so different and just the way we get along is almost inexplicable,” Barcroft said. “It will be cool to see where it goes from here with all the hours we spend together.”
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.