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Raiders will remain football independent

ASHLAND ' The Southern Oregon University football program still doesn't have a league to call its own.

The Raiders, an NAIA independent gunning for a spot in the Frontier Conference since November of 2003, offered the Montana-based league &

36;12,500 per year to let SOU join in a meeting earlier this month.

But, said, Raider Athletic Director Phil Pifer, officials of the conference made a counteroffer 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 create 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.

The goal, he said, is to schedule at least four home games each season and some years a fifth.

The Raiders had just three home games in 2003 but locked up four for 2004. On the downside, SOU's upcoming 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, he said, 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 ' it has a 35-15 record the past five years ' 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 drawback to being an independent. Teams that win their conferences and are rated in the top 20 nationally qualify for the 16-team NAIA Championship Series, SOU must finish as the top-ranked independent and have a top-20 ranking 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.

Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 482-3456.