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Raiders to stay independent

For better or worse, the Southern Oregon University football — program will remain homeless.

The Raiders, an NAIA independent gunning for a spot in — the Frontier Conference since November of 2003, offered the Montana-based — league $12,500 per year to let SOU join in a meeting two weeks ago. According — to Raider Athletic Director Phil Pifer, FC officials came back with a — counter-offer that equaled "about five-times" that amount.

The Raiders turned it down.

"It was quite a bit higher than what we had proposed and — we decided for us to want to play the type of schedule we need to play — with NAIA institutions, we thought we could put the money we used for — the proposal to better use," Pifer said.

The decision means the Raiders' struggles to put together — a nine-game regular season schedule will continue, with no plans to change — classifications in the works and no opportunity to join another conference — in sight.

Pifer, however, said the Raiders still are in a good situation.

"It's really not a letdown," he said. "I think had we — been able to get in (to the Frontier Conference) at a reasonable cost — it would have been probably a good thing, but I think with the resources — that we have, we're going to be able to put together a good home and away — schedule. Our goal is (to schedule) four games and some years a fifth — home game."

The Raiders managed to schedule just three home games — in 2003, but locked up four for 2004. On the downside, SOU's '04 schedule — also includes two long road trips to Montana and another to southern California.

Exhausting bus rides may have been even more frequent — had SOU joined the Frontier Conference, but

the prospect of playing in a powerhouse league with the — likes of two-time defending national champion Carroll College enticed — the Raiders to try anyway.

The price for change proved much too high, however.

"If we were going to spend that kind of money, we could — do much better as an independent ... attracting teams to play here, so — we think we can continue to play good football programs," Pifer said.

Pifer added that SOU will also continue to try to schedule — opponents with scholarship programs similar in scale to SOU's. Since few — NAIA football programs reside on the West Coast, that could prove to be — the Raiders' greatest challenge.

Pifer said he's up to it.

"We want to have a quality schedule, work toward playing — NAIA competition and stay in the playoff race," he said. "That's not to — say that we may not travel to the Frontier Conference on occasion. Next — year we're going twice, and we may continue to do that by scheduling home-and-aways. — But, for us to travel over there plus give them the guarantee [pay travel — expenses] to come over here, the numbers just didn't work out."

Raider coach Jeff Olson, who's been vocal about his desire — to join the Frontier Conference, said SOU made the right decision.

"I think for the time being there's no question this is — what's best for us," said Olson, who was SOU's lone representative at — the Frontier Conference's June 10 league of presidents gathering at Lewiston, — Idaho. "Our administration has been 100 percent behind the attempt to — move to the Frontier Conference and it's not going to work, so now they're — 100 percent behind our attempt to [stay independent]."

The Raiders have played an independent schedule since — the Columbia Football Association dissolved after the 1998 season. But — even though SOU is riding a wave of success unprecedented in program history — - the Raiders have a 35-15 record dating back to the final game of 1998 — - that independent status has proven to be an obstacle, not an ally.

With no conference opponents lined up for scheduling and — few NAIA teams within driving distance, SOU has been forced to play teams — with superior scholarship programs. Last season, that proved crucial, — as losses to Linfield (NCAA Division III) and Humboldt State (NCAA Division — II) ended up costing the Raiders a shot at their third-straight playoff — appearance.

There's another downside to being an independent. While — conference champions rated in the top-20 in the final poll qualify for — the 16-team NAIA Championship Series, SOU must finish as the top-ranked — independent and be ranked in the top-20 to earn a playoff spot.

Still, Olson said none of the above has stopped the Raiders — from becoming a national powerhouse.

"We just have got to put a positive spin on it," Olson — said. "Right now, it's the direction we're headed. It's been good to us — so far, so let's keep it going."