ASHLAND —The Southern Oregon University football team opened its 2012 preseason camp Saturday and put the pads on for the first time Monday in preparation for a day some thought would never come: The Raiders first game as a member of the Frontier Conference.
It will happen Sept. 1 at Spiegelberg Stadium in Medford, where Southern Oregon will play Montana-Western in a game that SOU has branded "The Medford Kickoff Classic."
"Being in a conference is special," Southern Oregon head coach Craig Howard said. "We've been an independent for so long it's new territory for us. Now our guys can be on an all-conference team, and it'll be fun to establish rivalries with these teams."
Though it's early, Howard said a few players have already raised eyebrows in practice. Linebacker Kalii Robinson, who was ineligible last season, has been a handful for opposing blockers, while senior wide receivers Patrick Donahue and Cole McKenzie are running good routes and making catches.
"They're having a great camp so far," Howard said.
Howard is entering his second season at the helm after guiding the Raiders to a 5-5 record in 2011, only the program's second .500 or better mark in the last eight years. Running Howard's spread no-huddle offense, the Raiders averaged 24 points and 382 yards last season. Though he isn't promising bigger numbers this time around, Howard said the team is way ahead of where it was last year in terms of understanding the offense and all its nuances.
"It's like night and day," he said. "It's so much different in Year 2. I call it the self-perpetuating offense because once they learn it, it's like a light coming on, so they're further ahead than last year at this time. And (the receivers) understand the routes and understand the concepts a lot better."
Whether or not that opener will live up to its billing has yet to be determined, but one thing's for certain: The Raiders, finally, will be playing for more than the pollsters this year. That's because after 13 seasons spent in limbo as an independent, the Raiders this year can qualify for the NAIA playoffs the old fashioned way — by claiming a conference championship.
That will require mastering the fearsome Frontier, Southern Oregon's new home (football only) which also happens to be "the SEC of the NAIA," as Howard put it two weeks ago during the league's annual preseason press conference in Great Falls, Mont.
Howard's description may be an overstatement, however, at least when it comes to the league's parity. The Frontier Conference has captured six of the last 10 national championships, but each of those titles, plus two runner-up finishes during the same time span, belong to NAIA powerhouse Carroll College.
Southern Oregon will host Carroll on Oct. 27. It will be the Saints' first trip to Ashland since an epic, snow-covered playoff encounter in 2001.
Other key games include an Oct. 6 home game against Eastern Oregon, picked to finish third in the conference, a road trip to Havre, Mont., the following week to play MSU-Northern, picked second, and the regular season finale Nov. 10 in Ashland against Montana Tech.
All 10 of SOU's games, including five home tilts, are Frontier Conference affairs.
The league's coaches tabbed Carroll the heavy favorite to win what would be its 13th straight league title by giving the Saints seven of eight first-place votes — coaches cannot vote for their own team — and 49 points overall in the preseason poll. MSU-Northern received the other first-place vote. Southern Oregon was picked fifth with 26 points.
That's about right, said Howard.
"We haven't played too much in this conference, so people don't know much about us, so that's probably where we should be picked," he said. "We gotta play those games to find out where we really are. We're the rookies of the conference."
Raider notes: Southern Oregon was scheduled to practice 3-6 p.m. Monday, but Howard cut out the last half-hour after the temperature in Ashland soared to about 100 degrees "… A running back who transferred to SOU from the University of Oregon, Tony Shelton, has shown phenomenal breakaway speed in practice but is still working out eligibility issues, Howard said "… The Raiders are tentatively scheduled to hold their first scrimmage from 4-6 p.m. Wednesday at Spiegelberg.