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SOC volleyball serves up parity

Column by GREG STILES

Never in the past quarter-century has Southern Oregon Conference volleyballbeen so unpredictable.

From the dawn of play in the 1970s, Ashland ruled the SOC roost untilthe emergence of North Medford and Roseburg.

Rarely has anyone else challenged the big three -- although Crater flourishedbriefly during the late 1980s when the SOC was divided into two divisions.

But in the past week, Klamath Union (winless in several recent seasons)defeated Ashland for the first time. South Medford knocked off defendingSOC champion Roseburg, beating the Indians for the first time. On the samenight, Ashland dusted itself off and beat SOC-favorite North Medford.

I don't think anybody's quite sure about what's happened yet,says North Medford coach Ron Beick. What I've seen so far is thatthere's a lot of physical talent.

Going in, I thought two or three teams would pull away right away.But it looks like the league will end up tight after the first round andit could be a real close race.

The primary contributor to the upheaval could be all those U.S. VolleyballAssociation club matches and tournaments players are participating in duringthe off-season that are producing results for everyone. Prior to 1994, whenBeick launched the Rogue Valley Volleyball Club, there were pockets of off-seasonplay. The RVVC has had as many as 130 girls playing at a variety of levels,including 35 varsity players last year.

The Southern Oregon Volleyball Club in Ashland and another club run byHenley coach Chuck Shannon in Klamath Falls have played a part in turningthings around.

I think a lot of (the balance) has to do with club volleyball becomingmore popular and playing year around, says first-year Crater coachLeaf Jensen. Eagle Point and Klamath Union are a ton better, and bothhave been involved in club ball.

While there is a general overall improvement from top to bottom in theSOC, no team has demonstrated the whole package that could make it a threatat the state tournament.

Each team has different strengths, says Eagle Point coachBriana Grieve. Crater is real strong in the middle. My team is strongoutside, and North and South are strong defensively. Everybody equals out,so there have been a lot of surprises.

In this season of flux, there are more new coaches than ever. Jensenand Grieve are two of the four new coaches in the conference. The othersare Ashland's Josh Rohlfing and Klamath Union's Malcom Munson, althoughMunson was previously at Mazama.

The only coach who has been on the current job longer than four seasonsis Katy Dungey, who's been at Grants Pass since 1990.

I think it's good that a lot of young coaches are coming into theleague, says Jensen. That's not saying anything against thecoaches that have been there a while, but younger coaches tend to be upon newer things. Once we get our feet wet, we'll start having an impactdown here.

Volleyball terminology, rules and strategy are rapidly changing.The teams on top of those changes will come out on top.

Given the physical balance, Grieve says it will come down to mental toughness.There no longer are traditional gimmes.

Every win becomes crucial for every team, Grieve says.

Beick disagrees with the notion that parity means no SOC team is capableof performing well in the state tournament.

From what I saw of Roseburg, he says, they could bea top contender. Some of the other teams don't have the size to match upto Gresham or Barlow. Roseburg does. The fact that so many teams have hadto play tougher matches will help when it comes to the playoffs.

OFF TO OKLAHOMA -- As if there isn't enough travel already built intothe Skyline A League football schedule, the Powers Cruisers are flying toOklahoma for a Saturday night game against the Medford Cardinals.

It's a match-up of Oregon's Class 1A 8-man champion against Oklahoma'sthree-time Class C 8-man runners-up.

Both teams are 3-0 and most of their players have never set foot in theiropponent's state. Powers' enrollment is around 75 students and Medford'sis around 80 -- both will dress about 20 players.

I was at a coaches' clinic in Tulsa and mentioned I was havinga hard time filling an opening in my schedule, says Medford coachChuck Goodner.

The publishers of a national magazine dedicated to 6- and 8-man footballoverheard the conversation and said maybe they could help.

In hardly any time at all, someone from Powers was calling me andone thing led to another, says Goodner.

Medford is 10 miles south of the Kansas border and roughly 90 miles northof Oklahoma City, where Powers will fly. The Medford booster club pledged$5,000 toward Powers' airfare, and visiting players will stay with hostfamilies and get a tour of the area Saturday morning. They'll visit thesite of the Oklahoma City bombing and the Cowboy Hall of Fame Sunday beforeflying back to Portland.

Oklahoma has taken a lot of good-natured ribbing from the restof the nation, says Goodner, referring to its depiction as a dustbowl in the John Steinbeck novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

But any time somebody comes from that far away, you want to makeit a cultural experience and make their stay a memorable one.

Because of a new two-year schedule implemented next year, there won'tbe a return game at Powers next season.

Maybe somewhere down the road, Goodner says.

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