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Sizzling SOU women start conference play

ASHLAND — The Southern Oregon University women's basketball team dominated its preseason competition. There's no other way to put it.

The Raiders (7-0) won their seven nonconference games by an average margin of 28 points. They shot 47 percent and held opponents to 36 percent, racked up a plus-eight rebounding margin and doubled up opponents in both assists (132 to 64) and blocks (20-9).

So, yes, there are a few reasons why Southern Oregon, according to the preseason coaches poll, is favored to win what would be its second straight Cascade Conference championship (the Raiders were co-champions last season)

The Raiders, ranked 16th in NAIA Division II, will put those lofty expectations to the test for the first time this weekend when they open their 20-game Cascade Conference schedule at home against Eastern Oregon (tonight) and College of Idaho (Saturday).

Both games start at 5:30 p.m. at McNeal Pavilion, where the Raiders have won 20 straight.

"We're excited about this year," said SOU coach Lynn Kennedy, who has guided the Raiders to a 66-32 record since taking over a program in shambles prior to the 2005-06 season. "Now, we have that national tournament experience that I think every coach wants. That's really valuable as far as going back — just being there and knowing what we need to do to get better."

SOU's first weekend of conference ball is a big one. Eastern (4-1) comes to town on a three-game winning streak after being picked to finish fourth in the conference, while 23rd-ranked College of Idaho (8-1) is riding an eight-game winning streak after being picked to finish second to the Raiders in the CCC preseason poll.

The SOU-C of I game could turn into a track meet. The Raiders rank fifth (84.0) and the Coyotes sixth (83.22) nationally in scoring. SOU has been efficient as well, shooting .474, fifth best in the nation.

"I think as a coach, you want to be in a position to defend a championship, but we know it will be extremely hard to do so," Kennedy said. "In the first three years, to see the strides that this program has made and to be picked first says a lot about the players and the coaches and the time we've put into this program."

It also says a lot about Kennedy's eye for talent on the recruiting front.

The Raiders are deep — nine players average at least 14.6 minutes per game, led by preseason player of the year Jacki Speer, a junior forward who's averaging 15.4 points and 7.1 rebounds. Speer is one of three Raiders with a double-digit scoring average: junior guard Whitney Scott is scoring 12.0 points per game and senior guard Rhiannon Dickison is averaging 10.9.

As with all Kennedy-coached teams, the Raiders like to push the tempo, but they're putting extra emphasis on another aspect of their game this season after getting ambushed in the first round of the NAIA Division II national tournament.

"We've kind of changed our philosophy a little bit on defense," Kennedy said. "We think that could be the difference."

So far, so good. The Raiders are allowing just 56.1 points per game, 18th best in the nation.

Eastern Oregon also qualified for the NAIA Division II national tournament last season and one-upped the Raiders by advancing to the second round. But the Mountaineers now enter a sort of abbreviated rebuilding mode after losing most of that team to graduation.

"We have a lot of youth, and that's something that we haven't been used to," said EOU's ninth-year coach, Anji Weissenfluh. "We only have four returning players, so we will rely heavily on those four returning players.

"When you lose 90 percent of your defense and 90 percent of your offense, you have a lot of question marks as a coach. So we decided to make this a two-year equation and went after a lot of freshman and transfers. I believe youth brings excitement."

Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 482-3456, ext. 224, or joe.zavala@dailytidings.com