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  • SOU begins spring football practice with high hopes

  • ASHLAND — Nearly five months still stand between now and the Southern Oregon University football team's 2014 opener. For a team with championships aspirations, and a roster constructed to live up to them, there is no getting around the long wait.
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  • ASHLAND — Nearly five months still stand between now and the Southern Oregon University football team's 2014 opener. For a team with championships aspirations, and a roster constructed to live up to them, there is no getting around the long wait.
    The first phase of that wait ended on Monday, however, when the Raiders opened spring practice. Eight transfers joined 78 returning players for the proceedings, which will culminate on May 2 at 6 p.m. with the annual spring game at Raider Stadium.
    The Raiders went 7-4 overall in 2013 and tied for second place in the Frontier Conference at 7-3, leading the NAIA in points (47.2 per game) and yards (588.2 per game) for the second straight season. Familiarity with the system at almost every position has them especially eager to see what they can do next.
    "This is the most experienced team we've had since I've been here," said Craig Howard, who is entering his fourth season as SOU's head coach, "and that allows you to get a lot more done this time of year. We've already had a great offseason and we're looking for a little more to propel us into the fall."
    Practice will be held at 4 p.m. every weekday, excluding Wednesdays, for the next four weeks. The Raiders will have scrimmages open to the public every Friday, starting this week at 6 p.m. On April 18, they'll hold a 6:30 p.m. scrimmage at Eagle Point High School that will be preceded by a free kids' camp.
    "It's a great evaluation period for us," Howard said. "We'll start from A-B-C, but we'll also get to tinker with some new things we haven't done before."
    Affording Howard and the Raiders that luxury is the fact that they lost just one starter on offense — and got back two players who were set to start in 2013 before going down with injuries — and just four on defense.
    That doesn't mean there will be a lack of competition. At receiver, for example, offensive coordinator Ken Fasnacht expects at least eight proven players to contribute, and for each one of them to compete for a starting job. Included in that group is first-team All-Frontier Conference performer Ryan Retzlaff, from South Medford, who led the NAIA in catches (85) while pulling in 108.3 yards per game and 12 touchdowns; Dylan Young, who averaged 112.3 reception yards per game; and Matt Retzlaff, Ryan's brother, who scored a team-high 15 touchdowns.
    The safest job belongs to incumbent quarterback Austin Dodge, SOU's career record-holder for touchdown passes (102), completions (875) and passing yardage (11,643). With 18 more TD passes, he would tie the NAIA career record, and he threw 47 last year.
    A veteran offensive line led by all-conference selections Drew Gibson, from North Medford, and Max Proudfit will be tasked with clearing the way for running backs Melvin Mason and Sean Tow, who took a bulk of the carries as freshmen.
    Defensively, the Raiders will have five of their top six tacklers from last year in camp. Linebacker Laurence Calcagno led them in tackles, recording 49 on his own and assisting 44, and was in on 10-plus in each of the last five games. Daniel Breaux got in on 60 tackles and had three sacks, making him a returning all-conference selection.
    Softball
    RAIDERS SWEEP — At Salem, Corban honored Southern Oregon University assistant coach Stephanie Hull on Monday for the all-time NAIA home run record she set with the Warriors last year.
    Then the Raiders went out and did their best Hull impressions with some improbably spot-on execution. SOU, which started the day as the only Cascade Conference team without a home run, ended the dinger drought with a bang — five of them, actually — to defeat Corban 14-6 and 8-7 at Warrior Field.
    Julia Willison went deep twice, belting a three-run homer in the first inning of Game 1 and a grand slam in the first inning of Game 2. Megan Scherer had a four-hit day, her first home run as a Raider included. And Sierra Anderson hit a three-run shot in Game 1 and a two-run double that broke a 5-5 tie in the fifth inning of Game 2 to put SOU up for good.
    The Raiders (10-10 overall, 9-3 CCC) swept the season series and have swept four of their last five doubleheaders going into weekend tilts Friday at Eastern Oregon and Saturday at 24th-ranked College of Idaho. The Warriors (19-15, 6-10), who on Sunday became the first team to take out first-place Oregon Tech, had won four of five.
    The last time SOU owned 9-3 conference record was 2009.
    Track and Field
    AVILA HONORED — Another remarkable run netted another Cascade Conference track athlete of the week award for Eric Avila, the conference office announced Monday.
    Avila left a herd of NCAA Division I runners in the dust Friday in the Stanford Invitational's 5,000-meter race with a time that stands as the best at any collegiate level this season: 13 minutes, 43.05 seconds. It cut down the previous SOU school record, which also belonged to Avila, by nearly 20 seconds.
    Avila earned the same award two weeks ago when he raced to the NAIA's top 800-meter time, 1:50.89, at Sacramento State's Hornet Invitational. He also won twice during cross country season, bringing his count to four this school year.
    The Chula Vista, Calif., native has automatically qualified to the NAIA Outdoor Championships in both aforementioned events.
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