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Bartling, Southern Oregon turn up the heat

ASHLAND — It's Friday night. The lights are on. The crowd is going wild. The home team celebrates another victory. Fallen foes cast jealous glances in postgame handshake lines. Victory and defeat on display.

This ain't football. This is Southern Oregon University volleyball.

Moments before McNeal Pavilion erupts, setter Lindsey Stone, the motor behind the Raider machine, set up outside hitter Sarah Holgen at the net. The 5-foot-10 Holgen sailed up and blistered the ball through the heart of the Northwest Christian defense. The chances of the girls from Eugene are, quite literally, killed on the gymnasium floor.

Head coach Josh Rohlfing circles the lady Raiders up on the sideline. A quick huddle, a few "good-jobs" and some smiles send the players off to their lockers. The quiet routine of success plays out.

For four years Rohlfing has brought continued success to Southern Oregon, and this season is shaping up to be no different. The Raiders (11-2, 8-2 Cascade Conference) are on a roll after dropping two of four matches to start the season, and look to take it up a notch as the heart of Cascade Conference play looms ahead.

"I want to see improvement from us," says Rohlfing. "We, the coaching staff, are looking for them to take a step up."

The ultimate goal of the team, according to Rohlfing, is to be a better version of themselves than they were the day before. Win the day.

After finishing the preseason with a loss to top-ranked Fresno Pacific, Southern Oregon appears to have gotten the message. The Raiders have reeled off eight consecutive victories, dropping only one game in that time. More important, the Raiders dispatched their top competitors, College of Idaho and Eastern Oregon University, in a total of seven games.

In a sport where the difference between first place and second can be as little as two points, the difference needed to win just one game, Southern Oregon is looking to win efficiently.

"We can't drop single games this year," says senior Leanne Stennett. "Last year we ended up tying for first place because we lost games. Our goal is to beat (other teams) in three."

So far so good.

A big reason for their success has been the presence of Holgen, Stennett and junior Megan Bartling. One of the biggest question marks coming into the season was, could Southern effectively terminate points and attack? For Rohlfing the answer has been an obvious yes.

"We are getting there as a group," he says. "Megan and Sarah are really terminating. For Leanne, she is really flipping that switch right now. It's a pleasant surprise."

Bartling and Holgen have both earned Cascade Conference hitter-of-the-week honors after wins earlier in the season. If Stennett keeps up her pace of play, nine digs and four kills versus Northwest, chances are she will as well. But, the individual awards merely reflect the team effort.

"It's that chicken and the egg thing," says Rohlfing. "Are they making the team better or is the team making them better. Either way it's benefiting both."

Bartling may be a familiar presence to local volleyball fans. Although she plays for Rohlfing now, the Medford native knows what it's like to look across at him as well. For three years as a member of the North Medford Black Tornado Bartling battled Rohlfing and his esteemed Ashland squads.

After earning all-conference honors as a senior in high school, Bartling looked at several Division I schools. Rohlfing came calling, and the man who coached her at summer camps and battled her in the regular season convinced her to stay local.

"It's nice to be home and local," Bartling said. "I have a lot of trust in (Rohlfing) and his coaching. I trust the program a lot."

Trusting and believing in the system has given Holgen, Stennett and Bartling the opportunity to flourish this season. The decision to be those reliable players was entirely up to them.

"There was a new sense of urgency," says Stennett.

Being a senior has a way of bringing to focus the fleeting opportunities of college athletics.

"I consciously thought, this is my last hurrah "… I need to be the best I can be this year," Bartling said.

"I thought to myself, I need to step up," she added. "I thought this team needs me to be reliable. Someone who can finish points for us."

No team wins or losses based on the performance of one or two individuals, but their impact is no doubt felt every time key players step on or off the court. However, if this team can keep it up, the fans at McNeal will have more reasons to cheer.

SOU junior Megan Bartling is a former North Medford standout and one of the Raiders’ leaders. - Julia Moore