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SOU football still in limbo

The Southern Oregon University football program's bid to join the Frontier Conference was dealt a blow recently, but still is in play and may hinge on the league's semiannual president's meeting in June.

With two votes still looming, three of the conference's six schools with football programs rejected SOU's proposal, according to Frontier Conference Commissioner Ron Kenison. Eastern Oregon cast the lone dissenting vote, chiming in with a yes for SOU and a no for Azusa Pacific, which is also trying to ditch its independent status and join the Montana-based conference.

Raider Athletic Director Phil Pifer and President Elisabeth Zinser plan to re-present the school's case - and add to it - at the conference's next gathering, June 10, at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho.

"We'll make our presentation and then the council of presidents will make the decision," said Pifer, who initially met with league officials in mid-November before making his formal presentation Jan. 27. "Dr. Zinser and I are optimistic based on the fact that the presidents have invited us to their meeting. I guess there was enough talk amongst the council of presidents that they're interested in hearing our proposal."

According to Kenison, the league's biggest hang-up with adding SOU and/or Azusa is the increased travel cost. Each Frontier Conference team would need to make the long trip to Ashland - probably by plane - at least once every two years. This, Kenison says, presents a financial obligation that the league is currently unable, or unwilling, to bear.

Pifer presented SOU's case before FC athletic directors last time. He said the June 6 presentation will be similar, "but we hope to add more information on things that can be done to mitigate the travel concerns."

When asked to elaborate, Pifer said, "It's a combination of things. I'm not at liberty to say that now until we make our presentation."

The Frontier Conference consists of nine teams, six of which play football. Montana tech, MSU-Northern and Montana-Western each rejected the proposals by both SOU and Azusa, while Carroll College, the defending NAIA national champion, and Rocky Mountain have yet to vote.

SOU, which has played an independent schedule since the Columbia Football Association dissolved after the 1998 season, wants to join a conference because its location and status as an NAIA elite has made scheduling increasingly difficult. In 2003, only three of the Raiders' nine games were at home and their itinerary included exhausting road trips to Bethany, Okla., and Silver City, N.M.

The Raiders tentative 2004 schedule is slightly more favorable, with four home games to go with two road trips to Montana (vs. Rocky Mountain and Montana State-Northern) and another long bus ride to southern California (vs. Azusa Pacific).

SOU has another incentive as well. As a member of a conference the Raiders could clinch an automatic berth to the NAIA national playoffs by winning a league title. Currently, SOU must finish the regular season as the nation's top-ranked independent to gain an automatic berth.

Even if the Frontier Conference does accept SOU, the Raiders won't become a full-fledged member - that is, they won't be able to compete for a conference championship - until 2006 because FC teams have already laid out their schedules through the 2005 season.

If the league doesn't adopt SOU, Pifer says he won't rule out trying again next year.

"I would say it depends on what the reaction is," he said. "We always leave the door open to apply (again). We might look at other options, and that's something we'd have to come back and start exploring."