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SOU rolls into Region I tourney

On the strength of a 20-match win streak, 10th-ranked Southern Oregon University volleyball will begin its postseason Thursday against rival Oregon Tech in the NAIA Region I tournament.

The three-day, eight-team event will be held in Spokane, Wash.

During the streak, the Raiders (25-4, 19-1 Cascade Conference) have been unstoppable, losing only three games and never giving up more than one game in a match.

First-year coach Josh Rohlfing believes the run of success has given the team confidence that it can prevail over any team that gets in its way.

"I think it has assured us of who we are and that we're capable of beating anyone on any given day," Rohlfing said. "During that 20-match win streak we had to win some big games on the road and a major match at home against one of the top teams in the nation, the number seven seed at that point, College of Idaho (22-7, 19-1 CCC). So I think that's why the 20-win streak is so important."

The regional tournament is split into two pools and is made up of Cascade and Frontier Conference teams. The winner of the tournament gains an automatic bid to the NAIA national tournament, leaving six at-large bids for the nation's non-regional champions.

The co-Cascade Conference champion Raiders (with College of Idaho) find themselves as the No. 2 seed in the region and the top seed in a pool with OIT (23-10, 15-5 CCC), which SOU swept this season, Lewis and Clark State (21-5, 12-2 Frontier Conference), which SOU defeated 3-1 on Sept. 1, and University of Great Falls (15-13, 7-7 FCC). The winner of that pool will square off with the runner-up of the opposite pool, and vice versa, to see which teams will meet in the championship and consolation matches on Saturday.

Rohlfing is aware of the stiff competition his team is about to face, but truly likes his teams chances.

"I think we have a great opportunity to be very successful," Rohlfing said. "All the teams in our pool can beat each other. Any team in the region can beat another team. But I really like where we're headed (and) I like the way we played last weekend (against Corban and Concordia)."

As if a 20-match win streak wasn't enough, Rohlfing believes his team is finding another gear and is just now hitting its stride.

"We plateaued for a couple weeks, which is expected, and now I feel like we're ready to make another run," he said. "The key is ball control and being able to have the hammers to put the ball away and we have five of those. (We have) a fantastic setter and a fantastic back-up setter so we're in a great position to do some things at the Region I tournament and hopefully at the national tournament."

One of the fantastic setters, Cascade Conference Player of the Year Lindsey Stone, couldn't be happier with her decision to transfer from University of Oregon to reunite with both her older sister, Emily, and her high school coach, Rohlfing. The sophomore said team unity and camaraderie is and will continue to be the reason for the Raiders' success.

"We all get along," Stone said. "There's been no drama whatsoever and the team connects, and that's what's made us go on this winning streak. There are a lot of great teams. But there are teams that are willing to fight together until the very end. That's what makes this team special I think."

Senior Shanna Claflin has been down this road before with the team, but is enjoying the ride and her teammates more than ever this time around.

"I think that if we continue playing the way we have been playing we probably will win regionals and be big contenders at nationals," Claflin said. "It's a similar feeling (as years past), but it feels even better since I am a senior and one of the leaders on the team this year. I feel like we have a lot more cohesiveness than we have in the past and we're playing more as a team this year."

Freshman Samantha Yutzie, who nearly quit the sport during a "very hard high school volleyball career" in Sublimity, is hooked again and is excited for what lies ahead.

"We help each other through everything and we love each other and we know we've done good this year," Yutzie said. "Josh has helped us out so much with our confidence level and I think regionals is going to be awesome and cross our fingers for nationals."

Junior first-team all-conference player Mia Wortel is confident that all the hard work the team has put in will pay off this weekend.

"I think we are going to win," Wortel said. "We're going to do really well. We have so much confidence going in and we know we can do it."

Sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or joe.