ASHLAND — The Southern Oregon University volleyball team wants to make history, shock the NAIA volleyball world and prove it belongs among the nation's elite.

ASHLAND — The Southern Oregon University volleyball team wants to make history, shock the NAIA volleyball world and prove it belongs among the nation's elite.

But the realist in Josh Rohlfing knows that tonight's match against No. 1-ranked Fresno Pacific also presents another, less-inspiring possibility: a ball-blasting, crowd-silencing Fresno Pacific romp, the kind the Sunbirds delivered often during last season's 37-1 national championship campaign.

"It is totally legitimate that they could come in here and hurt us pretty badly," said Rohlfing, SOU's second-year head coach. "But I want to know, and I want our girls to know that, 'Hey, this is where we want to be, now what are we going to have to do to get there?'"

The Raiders' quest to take the program's next big step begins this afternoon at McNeal Pavilion, where 12th-ranked SOU will host Simpson in the inaugural Raider Classic, a four-team affair that also includes Fresno and Oregon Tech. The Sunbirds and Owls open the tourney at noon. Other first-day pairings are Oregon Tech versus Simpson at 5 p.m. and Southern Oregon's matchup with Fresno at 7:30 p.m.

The Raiders, who finished 26-6 in 2007, will also play the Sunbirds at noon Saturday.

While Rohlfing knows his team will likely be overmatched against Fresno Pacific, he believes Southern Oregon has big-time potential. How early that potential is reached, however, may have less to do with the Raiders' performance on the court than their progress in the training room.

At least four key players on SOU's roster are nursing injuries ranging from nagging to somewhat serious, and the list of the walking wounded includes three outside hitters — Kalista Harrison (shoulder), Samantha Utzie (abductor pull) and Sarah Holgen (abdominal pull).

On the bright side, SOU's two returning All-Americans, junior setter Lindsey Stone and senior middle blocker Mia Wortel, are healthy and ready to lead a Raider offense that Rohlfing says should be "a lot quicker as a team, a lot more explosive, a lot more dynamic," than the one that helped the Raiders capture a co-Cascade Conference championship last season.

Stone returns for her second season at SOU after a spectacular sophomore campaign that included a conference player of the year award and a second-team All-American nod. The 5-foot-9 former Ashland High star and University of Oregon transfer considered hanging up her knee pads permanently in the offseason, but ultimately decided to come back.

That's good news for the Raiders, who would be in trouble without her 12.45 assists per game.

Wortel is the other proven all-star. The 5-foot-11 block machine had 117 stuffs last season and led the Raiders with 3.53 kills per game.

Other likely starters for the Raiders include former North Medford star Megan Bartling (6-1 middle), sophomore right side Leah Bergstrom (6-0), sophomore libero Maggie Rivers (5-3) and Holgen (5-10), a freshman who, along with Lindsey Stone, helped Ashland win the 2005 state championship.

Deep and athletic, but green, the Raiders will probably roll out several different combinations before settling into a regular rotation, a process Rohlfing expects to take a month or more.

They'll probably have to improve in hurry in order to stay above .500 thanks to a challenging early season schedule — five of SOU's first eight matches are against teams ranked in the top nine, including the Sept. 5 Cascade Conference opener against No. 9-ranked College of Idaho.

But first comes tonight's shot at Fresno Pacific, arguably the best NAIA volleyball program in the country. Led by NAIA player of the year Shu Liu, a senior setter from Shen Yang, China, the Sunbirds will roll into McNeal with a lineup that includes nine 6-footers.

Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 482-3456, ext. 224, or joe.zavala@dailytidings.com