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His one final shot

It's been a long and sometimes strange journey for SOU's Zac Olson, who has finally found a home with the Raiders

ASHLAND ' A twinkle dances in his eyes and a smile crosses his face as Zac Olson gets ready for basketball practice at Southern Oregon University.

Some players view practice as work. Olson sees it as play ' or simply another opportunity to participate in the game he loves.

At the age of 26, Olson finds himself attending his fourth college and playing for his fourth team since graduating from North Salem High School in 1994.

He's a 6-foot-2, 180-pound senior shooting guard for the Raiders. This is his last hurrah. And he plans to make the most of it.

Never mind that his newest team ' the Raiders ' have struggled to a 2-8 record thanks to their youth and a slew of injuries that has bitten almost everyone except Olson.

Southern Oregon is home Friday against Pacific Lutheran University of Tacoma, Wash. Tip-off is 8 p.m.

Right now, I wouldn't trade this for anything, says Olson, meaning his final year of college eligibility.

Despite not having played organized basketball for nearly four years, Olson has scorched the nets for 21.1 points per game while shooting 49 percent from the field and 81.5 percent from the free-throw line.

He has scored 20 or more points in seven of SOU's 10 games, including five straight 20-point or more outbursts during one stretch ' something no one had done at SOU since Matt Meunier during the 1990-91 season.

He has carried us offensively, Raiders coach Brian McDermott says of Olson, an athletic sort who can drive the lane or drill the outside shot with equal expertise. And the thing is, he's just feeling his way right now.

It's been a long time since he's been out there with college guys guarding him, and yet he's not having much trouble scoring off them.

If we can get him to buckle down defensively, he'll be a hell of a player.

Olson wasn't too shabby at North Salem High. He earned Valley League MVP honors and second-team all-state accolades as a senior with the Vikings, averaging just over 19 points per game, then played at nearby Chemeketa Community College for two years.

That earned Olson a scholarship to Portland State, but he had trouble coping with the harsh ways of then-coach Ritchie McKay and transferred to Lewis and Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho.

Olson hadn't completed his first season in Idaho when he tore cartilage in his left knee, and then flunked out of school and returned to Oregon.

I took everything for granted when I was younger, Olson admits. I didn't take school seriously. I was young and wild and made some bad choices.

Over the next three years, Olson went from one menial job to another. But his life took a big turn for the better in 2000 after he moved to Medford and went to work at the Rogue Valley Family YMCA.

Olson found himself surrounded by positive, goal-oriented people, and the facility offered him a chance to sharpen his skills on the court.

Those who joined him in pickup games were left in awe as Olson would hammer down a dunk on one possession, hit a 12-foot pull-up jumper on the next and then drain an NBA-range 3-pointer the following trip upcourt.

Olson's life began to settle down even more after he got married in the summer of 2001. His wife, Kari, a registered nurse, made sure he kept all of his appointments, all of his commitments, all of his promises.

He had talked about enrolling at SOU for the past couple years, dreaming of one last chance to play college basketball.

Commit to it, Kari said. And he did.

She's my saving grace, Olson says of his wife.

The Raiders' slow start has left the young team frustrated, but Olson hasn't had any trouble maintaining that twinkle in his eyes.

I've never been on a losing team, he says. I don't like it, but I'm looking at it as a learning experience.

And I know we're going to get this thing turned around.

As someone who has turned his life around, Olson should know.

Southern Oregon?s Zac Olson is playing for his fourth team since graduating from high school in 1994. Olson is the Raiders? top scorer this season. Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune Roy Musitelli