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Raiders have new big man on campus

ASHLAND — Southern Oregon men's basketball coach Brian McDermott needed a center, and Eric Thompson needed a change of scenery and a fresh start.

Both got what they wanted, and now the Raiders for the first time since another celebrated big man graduated six years ago look like a legitimate threat to win the Cascade Conference.

The Raiders (12-5, 5-1 CCC) may find out exactly how legitimate tonight, when No. 3 Oregon Tech (16-2, 5-1) pays a visit to Bob Riehm Arena. Tipoff is set for 7:30.

About a year after saying goodbye to his professional baseball career, and six years after he was originally recruited by McDermott, Thompson looks like he never stepped off the basketball court. The 23-year-old freshman ranks third in the league in both points (18.7 per game) and rebounds (8.7), giving the Raiders easily their most significant post presence since Shea Washington led the team to back-to-back NAIA Division II national tournament appearances in 2005 and 2006.

Of course, that was McDermott's vision when he first landed the silky smooth Thompson back in 2006.

Five-and-a-half years ago, McDermott thought he had locked up a recruiting class that could keep the Raiders riding high in the post-Washington era. An intimidating 6-foot-7 center, Washington had just wrapped up one of the best three-year runs in school history and was named the national player of the year as a senior.

Months later, in June of 2006, Southern Oregon announced an impressive collection of incoming freshmen that included two highly touted big men: Grants Pass standout Jason Nunnemaker and Thompson, a two-sport standout.

The feeling in Ashland was that the duo would give the Raiders a vicious one-two punch in the middle for years to come. That's not what happened.

Thompson was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 23rd round of the Major League Baseball first-year player draft and was wooed into signing a five-year contract only weeks before the Raiders' 2006-07 season was set to begin. Soon thereafter, Nunnemaker dropped out of school for personal reasons.

"So we went from thinking we'd be young for a year then we'll be pretty good again, and that's not how it played out," McDermott said. "Sometimes when you miss on a recruit, it's not like you can just go out and reload the next year. It just doesn't happen. We don't get the really, really good ones that often for a lot of reasons, and when you have one and you're excited about him and you lose him, that's a big (disappointment)."

Thompson's baseball career followed a common path. He slowly moved up the ranks, improving his fastball — he says he could hit 94 mph on the radar gun — and his control, eventually earning a spot with the Dodgers' Triple-A club, the Albuquerque Isotopes. But once there, his progress and ultimately his career was derailed by an injury to his rotator cuff.

Thompson tried to play through the pain, but over time his effort to get back to 100 percent began to feel futile. One day the shoulder would feel great, and the next the pain would return without warning.

But there was light at the end of the tunnel.

As part of his contract, the Dodgers agreed to pay for Thompson's college tuition should he decide to return to school, which made the decision that much easier after McDermott dropped a line last December asking Thompson how things were going.

"(McDermott) asked me if I wanted to come down here and play with the guys," Thompson recalls, "and I had already been on campus when I was in high school and I loved Ashland, and then I got down here, loved the guys. I enrolled in a couple classes in the spring and from there I really loved it here. So it was like, yeah, this is what I want to do."

Working out with the team in the spring allowed Thompson to get a feel for his new teammates and the system while also giving him a chance to rediscover his own game. At Roseburg, Thompson was an offensive force both inside and out. He was big enough to back in most opposing centers, but he was deadly from outside, too — a fearsome combination.

It took him a while to get back in the groove, but by the time the season started Thompson had returned to his old self. He led the Raiders in scoring in their first seven contests and scored 30 points or more four games in a row.

Not much has changed since the start of league play: Thompson has been the Raiders' leading scorer in four of their six league games, and had 17 points and six rebounds in last week's upset win over No. 17 Warner Pacific.

"He's got the little hard-dribble spin, and he can bump-spin you really good," McDermott said, describing Thompson's game. "So we're learning how to use him a little bit better.

"If they put the really big guy, the post guy, on him he gets a lot of open (shots) outside. But when they put somebody that's a little bit smaller then he just beats them inside. He's just really strong. You watch him go through the weight workout, he's a man."

Now, that man has the Raiders looking dangerous again — they've won seven of their last eight games — just in time for a showdown with their archrivals from Klamath Falls.

Thompson can't wait.

"From what I know from the tradition at Southern Oregon, it's always the most intense game of the year and they're definitely really good," he said. "They have a lot of really good players and we're definitely going to have to do things right and click as a team to beat them, but I'm excited about it. It's going to be our biggest challenge of the year."

Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-776-4469, or email jzavala@dailytidings.com

SOU freshman Eric Thompson leads the Raiders against rival Oregon Tech at 7:30 tonight in Bob Riehm Arena.