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Olson returns to SOU for Hall induction

For the student-athletes, coaches and athletic personnel at Southern Oregon University, McNeal Pavilion is a place they call home. Film study, team practices, study hall and coaches meetings keep them here for the majority of their time on campus.

On Saturday, McNeal Pavilion is opening its doors again to welcome some of SOU's most storied figures back home to stay. At 9 a.m. SOU hosts the Sports Hall of Fame banquet in the Rogue River Room of the Stevenson Union, where four new inductees will be forever enshrined in McNeal Pavilion.

For former player and head coach Jeff Olson, his alma mater is providing one last great memory in a 24-year-old relationship.

"It's been such an incredible journey," said Olson. "Such incredible people — players, coaches, administrators. I've had a blessed career."

Olson came to then-Southern Oregon State College as a junior college transfer from San Diego. He settled on Ashland when he and some friends took a road trip during Christmas break in 1979. They hit every small school from UCSD to Lewis and Clark College in Portland. But something about SOSC caught his eye. The next year he was a Raider.

After graduating in 1982 Olson moved back to Southern California but couldn't shake the feeling that something wasn't quite right.

"Something was missing in my life. I just didn't feel like I was done learning. My head coach, Chuck Mills, offered me a chance to be a graduate assistant and come back to earn my master's degree. It was a chance to get involved again."

Mills offered Olson a volunteer position with the team, eventually giving Olson the first coaching contract of his career.

Olson worked on the coaching staff until he was named head coach in 1996. As head coach he wanted to create a program that the entire state would be proud of. And he started that program by winning over the valley and his players.

"I demanded three things from my players: excellence on the field, in the classroom and in the community," he said.

The community started the buy in and the Raiders and the fans enjoyed the pinnacle of their success in 2000 and 2001.

Led by a suffocating defense and NAIA all-American running back, and fellow Hall of Fame inductee, Dusty McGrorty, the Raiders made back-to-back quarterfinal appearances, losing to eventual champions Carroll College both years.

"That was an incredible run. We had the most tremendous mix of leadership, buy-in, responsibility and accountability. The support from the parents and campus and administrators made that a really special time."

During his 24-year career at Southern Oregon University Olson coached 19 All-Americans and has the best winning percentage of any Raider coach (.581). Since his resignation in 2004 Olson has worked closely North Medford High and its football program. He was head coach of the Black Tornado from 2005-2010 and now works as the coordinator for college recruiting at North Medford and as an assistant coach at Cascade Christian where his son plays football.

One of the All-Americans Olson coached at Southern Oregon University, McGrorty, will join his former head coach in the Hall of Fame. McGrorty was a three-time All-American (2001-2003) and set the Northwest Small College records for career rushing yards (5,414), touchdowns (75) and carries (983). He also had a career 5.5-yard per carry average.

McGrorty helped lead SOU to back-to-back playoff appearances. Both playoff loses to Carroll have grown in Raider lore. The 16-13 loss in 2001 known as the Snow Bowl, featured six-inches of snow dumped into Raider Stadium the night before the game. The 35-31 loss in 2002 could have been dubbed The Comeback — Carroll College stormed back from a 31-17 fourth-quarter deficit.

McGrorty went on to play a season in the NFL with the Saint Louis Rams.

Joining McGrorty and Olson are former volleyball head coach Paul Elliott and former track and field All-American Tiwana Merritt.

Elliott is the most successful coach in Raider volleyball history. He amassed 381 wins in 16 seasons with the Raiders, winning six Cascade Conference championships and coaching nine All-Americans.

Merritt is one of the most versatile athletes to come to Southern Oregon in a long time. She was eight-time conference champion in track and field and a three-time All-American while on campus. Merritt won the 200-meter dash in 1998, 1999, 2001 and 2002. She won the 100-meter dash and 400-meter dash in 2001 and 2002. Merritt was an All-American in the 400 in '99, '01 and '02.