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Blazing Berry keeps SOU's fire burning bright

MT file photo

ASHLAND -- Denise Berry is one of the big reasons -- as is her imposing 6-foot-1 frame -- for the rise of the Southern Oregon University's women's basketball team to the No. — position in the NAIA national rankings.

Berry, a 20-year-old junior forward-center from Crook County High School who fights fires for the state during her summers, has been on fire as an offensive inside force for the top-rated Raiders.

She leads the team in blocked shots (1.6 per game), ranks second in rebounds (7.7), and third in scoring (12.6).

But the benefits Berry brings extend beyond the court.

We have good chemistry on this team, and one of my roles is to make sure it happens, says Berry. We have 15 girls and they all get along.

That's a little unusual for girls, but it works for this team and that's part of the reason we're the No. 1-ranked team in the nation.

Berry combines with 6-1 junior Nada Janackovic to give SOU coach Shirley Huyett's team an effective inside scoring combination and a major defensive presence.

With those two players in our lineup, it causes real problems for other teams, says Huyett. Teams have a hard time keeping track of the other three players, if they are concentrating on containing Denise and Nada.

It really opens up our perimeter game when things are going well for Denise and Nada.

Huyett says she's honored to be coaching the No. — team in the nation. The Raiders (19-2 overall) slipped from the top spot after losing to Western Oregon three weeks ago but regained it in this week's poll.

I'm glad, says Huyett. What it means is we've just had good season thus far. But it's good for our reputation.

We didn't like it when we dropped from No. 1, and it's good to be back. If nothing else, being ranked high will help our seeding in the national tournament. It also gives us incentive to keep winning to stay there.

Southern Oregon and Western Oregon both have 6-1 records atop the Cascade Conference. Both teams have seven conference games remaining, including a game Friday night in Salem against Western Baptist and a crucial head-to-head matchup on Saturday night at Western Oregon.

Avenging their lone conference defeat is definitely on the agenda for the Raiders.

We owe them one, says Berry. That loss really woke us up.

We found out we can get beat. We need to rebound better than we did last time and shoot better. If we do that, we should beat them. But we know we have to be ready to play them on the road.

Berry, a member of SOU's national semifinal team in 1997, wants to help her team take one more step and win a national women's NAIA championship in March in Sioux Falls, Iowa.

I'm looking for a national championship out of this group, especially with all the experience we have from being in the final four last year, says Berry. I think we have all the ingredients to do it.

The ingredients start with Janackovic and Berry inside.

They both have good post moves and they pass to each other real well, says Huyett. They move the ball well and they both have a good feel of when to shoot it.

Berry says rebounding is where she needs to improve.

Lately, I've felt I haven't gone after the ball as hard as I can, she says. We need to rebound better as a team, and I need to do my part.

Huyett agrees.

Scoring, rebounding on offense and playing interior defense, she's doing a good job, says Huyett. But in defensive rebounding, she needs some work. She needs to make better contact blocking people off the boards and then go get the ball harder.

Berry is shooting a team-best .532 from the field and .740 from the foul line.

Squaring up and shooting the ball is probably what I do the best, she says. But my free-throw shooting should be better.

Berry wants to be a teacher and coach after graduation.

There will be a lot of Shirley in me, she says. I will require them to play with discipline, like Shirley does. I'll be a strict coach.

My players will have to shoot left-handed layups from the left side of the basket. Coach Huyett gets upset when we don't use our left hands.

The way Berry is scoring and rebounding, she has to use both hands to get the job done.

Southern Oregon's Denise Berry, right, has been a big part of the top-ranked Raiders' dynamic inside game this season.