ASHLAND — Twenty-four Southern Oregon track and field athletes left Tuesday morning for Marion, Ind., and the 2012 NAIA Outdoor Track and Field National Championships. The championship meet will take place Thursday through Saturday at Indiana Wesleyan University.

ASHLAND — Twenty-four Southern Oregon track and field athletes left Tuesday morning for Marion, Ind., and the 2012 NAIA Outdoor Track and Field National Championships. The championship meet will take place Thursday through Saturday at Indiana Wesleyan University.

With 16 male and eight female athletes headed to Indiana, SOU head coach Grier Gatlin believes the Raiders have a chance to finish among the top-five on the men's side and establish a program record for team finish at the national meet.

"Our chances to do well once we get there are very good and our expectations are high," Gatlin said. "We certainly have a chance to earn a podium spot with the men, which is a top-four team finish."

The Raiders' 16 male qualifiers are tied with Siena Heights for the fifth-most of any program, behind Doane (22), Concordia (19), Shorter (18) and Oklahoma Baptist (17). Entering the national meet, SOU boasts five male athletes ranked in the top six in six total events, with Matt Battaglia leading the way as the top-ranked runner in the 800.

Southern Oregon finished the Cascade Collegiate Conference championships with nine event championships and 24 all-conference performances. Jonz Olander earned Male Track Athlete of the Meet honors after winning individual titles in the 200 and 400 along with a championship in the men's 4x100 relay. Olander will compete in three events in Marion, taking part in the 400 and both the 4x100 and 4x400 relays.

"Jonz is running extremely well right now, and I think getting him some better competition at the national meet bodes well for him," Gatlin said.

Eric Avila goes into the national meet ranked second in the 1,500 after winning the conference title in the event. James Johnstone won the CCC steeplechase title and will be ranked third at the NAIA meet, followed by fifth-ranked teammate Scott McIntyre. Max Perry ranks second in the shot put and sixth in the hammer.

Joining Johnstone and McIntyre in the steeplechase will be 11th-ranked Dennis McCaffrey and 18th-ranked David Sherman, giving SOU four competitors in the event. Jared Hixon will join Avila in the 1,500, Ryan Sorenson will run in the 10,000 and the marathon, Tyler Tompkins will compete in the hammer and Sullivan Stevens will run in the 110 hurdles.

Both the 4x100 and 4x400 relay teams will compete at the national meet, with Beau Bridge, Brandon Ritchie and Nick Perrino joining Olander to compete in both events and Chase Bussing running in the 4x400.

On the women's side, 12th-ranked Seena Frantz and 17th-ranked Alexandra Rudd will give SOU two runners in the 10,000.

Gatlin believes the team has been continually improving as the season has progressed, and he expects that to continue this week with strong performances from all the athletes.

"I think moving forward, the people who placed really highly in conference are also ranked really high going into nationals," Gatlin said. "Our expectation is always to improve on what we've done before."

Along with Frantz and Rudd in the 10,000, Frantz will run in the 5,000, Amelia Maguin will compete in the 400 hurdles, Hannah Mason in the discus and Jessie Rozario in the steeplechase. Maguin, Mikayla Garrard, Nicole Leaf and Angelica Cahee will run in the 4x100 relay.

"At this point our goal is to maintain sharpness," Gatlin said. "We don't need to go crazy and do any sort of hard workout. All our hard work is done, so we're just doing some maintenance stuff so when the meet starts we'll be rested and ready to perform at a high level."