ASHLAND — The Southern Oregon University women's basketball team has won back-to-back Cascade Conference championships, qualified for the NAIA Division II Tournament three years in a row and is 20 months removed from having become the first CCC team in 15 years to appear in the national title game.
To continue the recent run of dominance, the 2017-18 Raiders have some work to do — namely, integrating head coach Alex Carlson's largest recruiting class yet.
In their first two years under Carlson's watch, the Raiders went 60-7, ran off separate winning streaks of 21, 17 and 16 games, captured a CCC tournament championship to go with their two regular-season titles, went 27-1 on their home floor and produced two CCC players of the year.
Senior point guard Toria Bradford is the only starter back, however, and is among five returning players who will be joined by 11 newcomers, including eight freshmen.
"The biggest thing right now is we have a lot of competitors, and that helps speed up the process," Carlson said. "There aren't really any shortcuts to getting familiarity on the court, but we still have good depth and excellent leadership. That's a good place to start."
Eastern Oregon was picked to win the CCC with nine of 11 first-place votes on the strength of three all-conference returners. SOU was picked second with the other first-place votes.
The Raiders open the season at 5:30 p.m. Friday against 24th-ranked University of California, Merced. It'll be the Raiders' final home game until conference play in December.
LAST SEASON: After opening with a setback at Lewis-Clark State, the 2016-17 Raiders went 81 days before their next loss in compiling a school-record 21-game winning streak.
They had top-10 national marks in per-game turnover margin (plus-10.8), scoring (82.6), scoring margin (plus-20.6), assists (18.4), 3-pointers made (8.9), steals (14.6), assist-to-turnover ratio (1.4-to-1) and free-throw percentage (75.3).
SOU peaked at No. 2 in the coaches' poll and went 27-5 overall, but their 10th all-time national tournament appearance was marked by a first-round loss to Northwestern (Iowa).
Seniors Tiani Bradford, Autumn Durand, Majerle Reeves and Demi Sahlinger left with 112 career wins, the most in program history.
GUARDS: Entering her third season at SOU, senior Toria Bradford gives the Raiders a sparkplug on offense and one of the top defenders in the nation.
The 5-foot-5 Oregon City product is a former CCC defensive player of the year, ranking third in the conference in steals last season at 2.9 per contest and setting an SOU record with 11 in a game.
After coming off the bench as a sophomore, she started as a junior and saw her scoring role expand as she averaged 9.8 points, shot 41 percent from the field and poured in a team-high 21 at the national tournament.
Remi Mejia, a redshirt senior, returned to the Rogue Valley after four seasons at Portland State. The graduate student was a former all-state performer for South Medford's state championship team.
"We're really excited about this group," Carlson said. "Toria is an extremely hard worker and is set to have an outstanding senior year, and Remi has been a great fit. She provides a lot on both ends and can have a great year scoring it for us."
The backups, sophomores Daranda Hinkey and Delaney Sparling, make the guard position SOU's most experienced. Hinkey appeared in all 32 games off the bench last year and averaged 5.4 points with 23 3-pointers, while Sparling also earned a spot in the rotation with 4.1 points in just under 10 minutes per game and 35 3s — the third-most on the team.
WINGS: Casey Williams, the only other senior on the team, wasn't a regular starter in her first season at SOU but played starter minutes. She played multiple positions while posting 7.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.7 steals and a pair of double-doubles.
She shined down the stretch, too, with 12 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in the CCC tournament.
Carlson also expects contributions from freshmen Kenadee Honaker and Sophia Altemus.
At 5-9, Honaker averaged double figures and was an all-California Interscholastic Federation selection as a senior at Valencia High. And at 5-10, Altemus was the Northern Athletic League's MVP with averages of 15 points and six rebounds at University Prep in Redding, California.
Both are adept 3-point shooters and fit into SOU's high-pressure defensive scheme.
FORWARDS: The Raiders lost the versatility of all-star forwards Autumn Durand and Sydney Mullings, but they won't drop off in frontcourt size. Junior forward Ariel Augustine, at 5-11, is penciled in as the starter.
A transfer from College of Southern Idaho, she averaged 12 points and six boards as a sophomore. Her backups will be a pair of freshman — Grace Corbin, the Mid-Willamette Conference co-MVP at Corvallis High, and Syd'Nee Fryer, the Valley Oak League defensive player of the year at Manteca High (Calfornia).
In the middle, Carlson is excited about the development of 6-foot freshman Bryanna Raff, who came to the Raiders via Lehi, Utah.
An impressive athlete with a soft scoring touch, Raff started SOU's exhibition game Saturday at Humboldt State. She'll be pushed by third-year Raider Nitteayah Barfield, a 6-1 center who came off the bench in 28 games last year and developed a stellar mid-range shot.
Destinee Jones, a junior transfer, will also be in the mix after attaining all-conference accolades for a state runner-up team at College of the Siskiyous.