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SOU clinches first-ever berth in NAIA championship bracket

Already in uncharted territory, the Southern Oregon University women's volleyball team now can afford to be greedy at the NAIA National Championships.

The 10th-ranked Raiders clinched a spot in the 12-team championship bracket and will play No. 3 Lee today for a shot at a first-round bye after pulling out a four-set pool play victory over Morningside on Day 2 of the national tournament Wednesday at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa.

The berth in the final bracket represents a breakthrough for Southern Oregon, which fell short of qualifying for that elite stage in five previous trips to nationals.

After the 25-14, 18-25, 25-23, 29-27 victory, Southern Oregon Athletic Director Matt Sayre announced to some 30 Raiders fans who made the trip that the team had clinched a spot in the final bracket for the first time in program history, which dates back to 1969.

"It was really cool," SOU fifth-year head coach Josh Rohlfing said. "I'm really happy for these guys. I've coached for more than 20 years, but I can't think of many teams that have come as far as this team has."

Indeed, SOU lost consecutive Cascade Conference matches in mid-September to fall to 4-6 and has won every match since — a streak that's up to 17 heading into today's showdown with Lee (31-2).

"They were kind of disappointed with how they played tonight," Rohlfing said, "but afterward I was able to tell them that no one in SOU history has done this, and that instantly changed the energy in that room. It was really, really special."

For the second day in a row, senior middle blocker Megan Bartling and senior outside hitter Sarah Holgen led a balanced Raider offense. Bartling spiked home 13 kills and was a terror at the net with seven blocks, while Holgen had 12 kills, 17 digs and three blocks. Sophomore libero Renee Yomtob had 22 digs and setters Angela Spieker and Caryn Westrick combined for 41 assists.

Morningside (26-8), the Great Plains Athletic Conference tournament champion, was led by Maggie Vondrak's 14 kills, Monica Iverson's 42 assists and Kaeli Austin's 11 kills and 11 digs.

The Raiders (23-4) guaranteed themselves a Friday match with their second straight clutch performance in Iowa, overcoming a 21-20 deficit in the third set and pulling out a marathon fourth set that included 15 ties.

In the third, Bartling's kill tied the set at 21-all and a hitting error by Austin on the next point gave the Raiders the lead for good. Holgen's kill off an assist by Westrick gave SOU the two-sets-to-one lead.

In the fourth, Morningside jumped out to a 10-5 lead as the Raiders struggled to put the ball away while making six attack errors. They kept swinging, though, and won seven of the next nine points — thanks in part to spikes by Bartling and Liz Madden and a service ace by Becky Johnstone — to tie the set at 12-all.

The rest of the set was nip-and-tuck. Neither team led by more than two points, and there were ties at 24, 25, 26 and 27 before the Raiders finally put away the Mustangs with consecutive kills by junior outside hitter Natalie Scheller.

Southern Oregon survived Morningside's only set point when Austin missed a spike attempt with her team leading 24-23.

"We just have such a resolve to finish," Rohlfing said. "When it comes down to crunch time, we know we have the guns to put it away. We can match anyone offensively. Actually, we feel like we're better than anyone offensively. A lot of teams have to go to one hitter, but our vision doesn't narrow and I think that's a huge tribute to the girls and how they've worked all year to make us more than two dimensional, more than (Bartling) and (Holgen)."

The Raiders will probably need to be at the top of their game in order to defeat Lee of Cleveland, Tenn., and grab the No. 1 seed out of Pool C. The Lady Flames have won 27 matches in a row, including Wednesday's five-set win over No. 14 Vanguard, and are led by a Brazilian outside hitter, Arlene Ferreira, who's amassed 52 kills in Lee's last three matches.

"I think the pressure's off, and that's the beauty of it," Rohlfing said. "Now we get to play wide open against one of the top teams in the nation, and when we play like that we're usually pretty good."