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Cheering on the champs

Tickets were lined up two rows deep clear across the counter next to the dinging cash register, each containing scribbled-out orders for cooks who could be seen (and heard) in the back frantically trying to keep up.

Like the Marian Knights, Southern Oregon’s victim in the NAIA national championship football game, the staff's efforts may have been futile because Northwest Pizza & Pasta Company was hopping, especially for a Friday afternoon. But it was no ordinary Friday afternoon in Ashland, where both casual and die-hard Raider fans gathered at sports bars and restaurants and plenty of other places, too, to cheer for Southern Oregon as it played for its first-ever national title in front of the bright lights of ESPNU.

Also jam-packed Friday was RedZone Sports Bar & Grill, the El Paraiso TV room and the university’s own Rogue River Room, stuffed mostly with SOU faculty and staff.

“They’ve been cheering non-stop — it’s been a great game,” said Northwest Pizza co-owner Lori Bohn, who also played the role of server Friday. “The first half was amazing. SOU’s up. The other team just scored so everybody’s kind of mellow now. But we’re still ahead so everybody’s in good spirits.”

Like seemingly everybody else in a 15-mile radius of Raider Stadium on Friday, Bohn was sporting Raider red, white and black, but she didn’t have much time between checking on tables and refilling drinks to enjoy the game. Still, she did what she could, spirit-wise.

“I just yell when everybody else is yelling,” she said.

In other words, Bohn was yelling quite a bit Friday, as Southern Oregon, behind All-American quarterback Austin Dodge, jumped ahead 31-7 en route to a 55-31 victory in Daytona Beach, Fla. Chants of “S-O-U … S-O-U” erupted at Buffalo Wild Wings in Medford as the Raiders stormed the field following the final horn. The crowd included former SOU football coach Jeff Olson.

Cheering especially hard at Northwest Pizza was Kristen Schoenherr, a guard for the SOU women’s basketball team who also happens to be Dodge’s girlfriend. Schoenherr said she would have loved to make the trip to Daytona Beach, but couldn’t ignore her basketball responsibilities. So she opted for the next best thing — watching ESPNU's telecast on a giant TV surrounded by fellow SOU supporters.

“I’m so pumped for him,” Schoenherr said of Dodge, who wrapped up a dream senior season by winning offensive player of the game honors (he was named NAIA national player of the year on Thursday). “I’m just so grateful that I don’t have a game right now and I can watch him. I’m really proud of him and everything that the team has accomplished. I’m really excited for this day. … I think he’s nervous but he’s very confident so I know he’s going to do great.”

Schoenherr’s hunch proved correct. Dodge completed 21 of 39 passes for 429 yards and three touchdowns against a defense that entered the game with 10 interceptions in its previous three playoff games.

“I don’t know how he handles everything,” she said. “It really is very cool and exciting.”

A few blocks down Siskiyou Boulevard, about 200 supporters packed into the Rogue River Room, located in the Stevenson Union building, to watch the game on a pair of projection screens set up on either side of a cavernous space. Fold-up chairs and couches were crammed in, food was catered and prizes were handed out — one to the fan decked out in the most Raider-esque attire.

The room was buzzing with energy at about 1:30 p.m., as SOU was putting together another impressive drive (the Raiders had three drives of 60 yards or more in the first half). Then the place erupted as SOU running back Melvin Mason stormed across the goal line to give the Raiders a 38-10 lead late in the second quarter.

“I was hoping for standing-room only but not so much that we ran out of pizza — and we nailed it just right,” said Kay Swader, who works in the SOU student life office and helped organize the staff viewing. “The way things have been the last couple years, to be able to grab hold of something this great and run with it and just be allowed to feel so great about what’s going on as a group, as a family, is really nice.”

Jennifer Athanas, SOU’s executive assistant to the president, agreed.

“It’s very exciting,” said Athanas, who grew up in Ashland. “There are a lot of people here that I don’t get to see on a regular basis, and some of them I’ve never met before, so it’s really great.”

The SOU faithful that gathered to watch history Friday didn’t go home disappointed, but there were some anxious moments as the game tightened up in the second half. Marian (Ind.) scored two touchdowns in the third quarter to cut SOU’s lead to 14 points and regained possession. But the Raiders, as they have so often this season, came up with the big play on fourth down, then drove 57 yards in 10 plays to extend their cushion to 21 points at 45-24.

Marian never threatened again.

After the game, Dodge was interviewed by an ESPN reporter then held up the championship trophy. His friend, former SOU basketball player Terriel Thomas — he was watching at Northwest Pizza — said the Raiders’ exposure on such a grand stage is great for both the town and the university.

“I’m jealous,” he said, shaking his head and smiling. “That’s gotta be a dream come true. All kids, number one, dream of going to the NFL. But the second dream probably is to play on ESPN or be on ESPN at some point. And they’re doing it. That’s amazing.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.