SOU struggles to fill home schedule
When it comes to Southern Oregon football, the only thing more difficult than winning home games is scheduling them.
The Raiders, who are 6-13 at Raider Stadium since 2004, will play just three games there in 2009, all before the start of the school's fall term — a setback for a program that needs all the student fan support it can muster.
The nine-game gauntlet ranks among the toughest in school history, too. Southern Oregon, an NAIA school, will play three NCAA Division III opponents, two NCAA Division II teams and as many NCAA Division I teams (two) as NAIA teams.
The schedule, which head coach Steve Helminiak called the "toughest in the NAIA," has drawn complaints from fans and parents of players since it was released April 30, but SOU's interim athletic director, Matt Sayre, said the program's independent status and isolated location make it difficult to attract opponents to Ashland.
"We were in negotiations from December until now with probably about 12 to 15 teams about coming here and we just can't get anybody to come to Ashland to play a football game," said Sayre, who teams up with Helminiak to put together the schedule. "They've got other schools closer to them that they can compete against. We even offered money and guarantees that would have been hard for us to come up with and everybody just said 'No.'"
The Raiders are still fishing for at least one more "yes." Currently, the school is in negotiations with Austin College, a NCAA Division III school, in an attempt to set up an Oct. 31 game in Ashland.
The Raiders open their 2009 campaign here Aug. 29 against Eastern Oregon. After that, it's off to Portland State for a money game against the Division I-FCS Vikings — PSU will pay SOU between $20,000 and $35,000, according to Sayre —followed by back-to-back home games against Willamette on Sept. 19 and Linfield on Sept. 26.
The Raiders finish the season on a five-game road trip capped by another money game Nov. 11 against North Dakota, which will pay SOU between $10,000 and $15,000, Sayre said.
"It's easier for us to find games against Division I opponents than NAIA opponents, but it's nothing that I want to continue to do," Sayre said.
Southern Oregon, which has played an independent schedule since the Columbia Football Association disbanded following the 1998 season, is 28-9 against NAIA opponents since 2000, 41-46 overall.
"I bet if you took the time and you scoured the NAIA schedules, you wouldn't find anybody playing two NCAA teams," Helminiak said. "Our guys, they like the competitiveness of it, they like lining up and playing against a Division I team. Obviously, we've had guys in the past — bounce back guys we call them — that have played at that level, or guys that felt like they were good enough to get offers and didn't. So, they kind of look forward to that challenge."
Southern Oregon is one of just three NAIA football programs on the West Coast, and the other two — Eastern Oregon and Azusa Pacific — have distinct advantages over the Raiders when it comes to scheduling. Eastern Oregon is a member of the six-school Frontier Conference, an affiliation that guarantees the Mounties at least 10 conference games per season. Azusa Pacific is located less than an hour away from Los Angeles International Airport, which has far cheaper rates than the closest airport to Ashland, the Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport.
Sayre and Helminiak are confident that the Raiders can compete against the NAIA's best, if given the opportunity. Over the last nine seasons, though, SOU has played an average of 4.1 games per year against NAIA teams.
"We're perfectly situated to be a good NAIA football program," Sayre said, referring to the abundance of solid prep football programs in Southern Oregon and northern California. "The problem is, there's just no NAIA football programs close enough for us to play."
One long term solution SOU is considering calls for the Raiders to join NCAA Division II, either across the board or just football. The latter seems more likely, since most of the other sports programs at the school are thriving as members of the NAIA's Cascade Collegiate Conference.
The nearest Division II conference is the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, which includes two teams that play SOU annually — Western Oregon and Humboldt State.
Sayre is currently working on the 2010 and 2011 football schedules. If NAIA teams continue to reject road trips to Ashland, he said, it will be hard to make a case against changing affiliations.
"It's going to be a huge factor in our decision about which way to go," he said, "but I don't want to put us in a situation where we can't be competitive in a D-2 league, either. Getting into D-2 is not the hard part. We could probably do that. Being competitive is the hard part. It takes a lot more money."
Sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or firstname.lastname@example.org