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SOC's fantastic four

Four conference teams make it to the tournament for the first time in history

Unprecedented are the conquests of Southern Oregon Conference volleyball teams this postseason.

— And the 16-team Class 4A state tournament ' set for today and Saturday at the University of Portland's Chiles Center ' hasn't even started yet.

For the first time, all four SOC playoff squads have earned spots in the tournament field.

Roseburg picked up the automatic bid as conference champion, but second-seeded Ashland, No. — North Medford and No. 4 Eagle Point fought their way through the back door.

The Eagles (17-9) ' making their first-ever tournament appearance ' soared through three rounds of state-playoff play, dropping nary a game in clubbing visiting Thurston and hosts Canby and Grant, in that order.

The seventh-ranked Black Tornado (20-7) went on the road to punch its ticket, taking out Glencoe and Mountain View in the second and third rounds, respectively.

The fourth-ranked Grizzlies (21-8) needed to win just a third-round home match and did it convincingly in a sweep of North Salem.

Now, half the SOC convenes on the state's grandest prep-volleyball stage.

It's pretty awesome, says Josh Rohlfing, Ashland's seventh-year head coach. If you would have said at the beginning of the year that we'd get all four playoff teams into the tournament, I would have said, 'That's gonna be hard to come by.' But I did feel like our league was tough, and toward the end of the year, I did feel like all four would have a good chance.

The ever-powerful Mt. Hood Conference also placed all four of its playoff squads in the tournament, but the Midwestern League is the only other of the state's 4A conferences to have as many as two representatives.

Volleyball's certainly grown in my 10 years that I've seen here, says Ron Beick, North's 10th-year head coach. As this success grows, it will only continue.

After a regular season of beating up on each other, the SOC is unified in supporting its postseason teams.

It was so cool to go back to school (Wednesday) and have messages, e-mails from other coaches in the conference wishing us luck, says Briana Groves, Eagle Point's second-year head coach.

But can the success continue?

In pool play today, the field will be whittled from 16 to eight for Saturday's tournament action. Two teams out of each four-squad pool advance.

The Grizzlies ' making their third straight tournament appearance and fourth during Rohlfing's tenure ' get started first.

In Pool 1, Ashland faces No. 1-ranked West Linn, Newberg and Barlow.

West Linn won the Three Rivers League, Newberg claimed the Pac-9 Conference and Barlow, the Mt. Hood's fourth seed, dropped one game in rolling through three playoff rounds.

The Grizzlies play West Linn at 8 a.m., Newberg at 10 and Barlow at noon.

I think we're drawing a lot from our experience of last year, says Rohlfing, whose 2002 team, ranked fifth, didn't survive a pool that included top-ranked Gresham and No. — Jesuit. There was a lot of disappointment in how we came out.

A year ago, Ashland never recovered from its opening-match loss to Gresham, Rohlfing says.

This time, he expects the Grizzlies to respond no matter what happens in the opener against the top-ranked Lions.

Ashland lost to West Linn and beat Barlow in pool play at the Clearwater Classic in Bend Oct. 11, but the Grizzlies have not faced Newberg this fall.

The Tornado and Eagles begin this afternoon.

Eagle Point, out of Pool 3, faces fifth-ranked Roseburg at — p.m., No. 10 Jesuit at 5 and No. — Central Catholic at 7.

North, in Pool 4, meets South Salem at 4, No. 6 Sheldon at 6 and No. 8 Reynolds at 8.

The Eagles own plenty of experience against the Indians, having tangled with them on five separate occasions this fall.

Roseburg boasts a 4-1 edge in the season series, with Eagle Point's lone victory coming in the championship match of Roseburg's tournament Sept. 6. The Indians swept the Eagles in three games in both SOC matches.

Jesuit, the Metro League champion, and Central Catholic, second out of the Mt. Hood, are unknowns for Eagle Point.

But the Eagles, who had never won a playoff match and only made it to the postseason once in program history before this fall, are riding a tidal wave of momentum.

The bottom line is that we can play with anybody if we're all playing, says Groves, who has gone blond to honor a preseason deal with her team that depended upon a state-tournament berth. I think the girls can make a good match with anybody.

Eagle Point, which left for Portland on Thursday, definitely has hometown support.

This is a big thing for Eagle Point, Groves says. The girls have been treated like princesses. ... The other day, one of the kids says, 'Oh my gosh, we're like celebrities.'

For the current mix of Tornado players, the state tournament is something new as well.

North is there for the first time since 2000.

My kids are real excited, says Beick, whose 1998 squad finished a program-best third in the state.

The Tornado is familiar with all three of its opponents, and Beick handicaps the pool as very even.

South Salem is the Valley League champion, Sheldon ruled the Midwestern and Reynolds took third in the Mt. Hood.

South Salem and Sheldon played here in the Sept. 20 Rogue Valley Classic, and Sheldon and Reynolds were at the Clearwater Classic. North played in both events but met just Sheldon, losing in the first round of bracket play to the Irish in Bend.

We're almost identical, Beick says of the four teams. It's kind of ironic that the pool ends up like that. ... It's going to be who can stick to their systems and make them work better?

And with three matches in a short period of time, and all obviously emotional and critical, it's a question of how the kids respond and how they stand up. ... All four teams have a shot at moving on.

The SOC's four representatives all hope to advance, and then chase another unprecedented feat Saturday ' the conference's first-ever appearance in the state-championship match.

North Medford?s Brittany Lawson, left, and Jessica Walters, right, helped the Tornado reach the Class 4A state tournament for the first time since 2000.