ASHLAND — Figuring out how to replace starters who graduated is a challenge every year for Southern Oregon University volleyball coach Josh Rohlfing. But this year, after saying goodbye to two All-Americans plus two more major contributors, Rohlfing may be facing his greatest test yet.
Still, only days before his team's season opener, not to mention a marquee matchup against fifth-ranked Biola, Rohlfing isn't sweating it. Instead, the Raiders' sixth-year head coach is boasting about SOU's phenomenal athleticism, while also admitting that, yes, there will be a learning curve and there's no telling how steep it will be.
"I feel like there's a lot more questions than answers, and going into a season that's a little unsettling at times," he said. "But it's the nature of change, the nature of transition. We're transitioning away from two All-Americans who played for four years — that's a tough one to do."
Those two All-Americans were outside hitter Sarah Holgen and middle blocker Megan Bartling, both of whom were also Cascade Conference all-star selections.
Taking over as Southern Oregon's primary ball-smasher this season will be senior Natalie Scheller, who ranked third on the team last season with 250 kills. Scheller will start alongside returning setters Angela Spieker and Caryn Westrick, both seniors, and junior libero Renee Yomtob.
The Raiders, who placed 11th in the country last season after advancing to the final bracket at nationals for the first time in team history, will start two setters in a 6-2 offensive system designed to maximize its versatility and spread opponents out. Other hitters who should see plenty of action are juniors Liz Madden and Haley Kasler, and — possibly — junior transfer Motade Atanda.
Atanda is still in the process of clearing some eligibility hurdles related to her transfer from Foothill Junior College, but if that works out in SOU's favor the Raiders will have access to another major weapon. Though slight by outside hitter standards, the 5-foot-8 Atanda is a phenomenal jumper who can touch a basketball rim, according to Rohlfing. And in practice, the former Division I player for Butler University already has shown flashes of brilliance.
"She's a better jumper than (Holgen), if you can believe it," Rohlfing said. "You watch her here, and it's insane. She's going to be the one that can put balls away for us."
The Raiders had plenty of players who could put the ball away last season, which partly accounted for their solid .233 attack percentage and 1,457 kills. Though he has yet to see them in a real match, Rohlfing is confident that the Raiders will be balanced again and may be even more athletic.
"I think we're going to be quick, really quick, and explosive," he said. "Understanding that, I feel like we could be very good offensively, and that's exciting. We have two experienced setters back and they're going to be able to run the offense however we want to run it "…so I think the pace to our game is going to be pretty phenomenal."
"Last year, we thought we couldn't get any faster than that," Spieker said, "and then this year, we watched film, and we are faster than what we were — or about right where we were at the end of last year. So, there's always room for improvement."
Of course, the full potential of Southern Oregon's athleticism can only be tapped if the Raiders effectively control the ball. To that end, SOU's serve receive will be crucial.
The Raiders' top two diggers from a year ago — libero Becky Johnstone and Holgen — have graduated, leaving Yomtob, sophomore defensive specialist Brookelynn Cole, Scheller and junior Mona Goudarzian to pick up the slack.
"If (serve receive) is on, if we're going like we have in practice, we're going to be exceptional," Rohlfing said. "If that part of our game isn't clicking, we could struggle a little."
The Raiders, who were ranked second to College of Idaho in the Cascade Conference preseason coaches' poll, won't have to wait long to find out exactly how they stack up against the nation's best. Biola, which lost just one player off a team that finished fifth in the nation last season, faces SOU in the opening-day nightcap of SOU's Paul Elliott Invitational Friday.
Southern Oregon may not be at full strength — Atanda, along with freshmen Tyana Andrews and Kelsea MacPhee may or may not be eligible in time for SOU's noon season-opener against UC Merced — but either way, the Raiders are looking forward to being tested right out of the gate.
"We just want to get together and play," Scheller said, "because I think through that we're going to find out our true identity and see who we really are as a team. When teams push us, will we battle back? Are we going to fight? Who are we going to look to?
"We're going to find out a lot about ourselves."