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Raiders next stop at Merced tourney

ASHLAND — There was more NAIA volleyball talent at last week's 14-team Biola Tournament than anywhere else in the country, and that's a scary notion when you're not exactly sure what your team is made of.

That was the case last season, when Southern Oregon University visited and was sent home with an 0-4 record. This year, at the same tournament, head coach Josh Rohlfing thought he had a better idea of what the Raiders were bringing and was at least a little validated by their 3-1 mark.

The Raiders have one more weekend to establish themselves, this Friday and Saturday at the U.C. Merced Tournament, before returning home next week to open Cascade Collegiate Conference play. They play Friday at 9 a.m. against San Diego Christian and at 1 p.m. against Merced, then Saturday at 9 a.m. against Cal-State San Marcos and at 5 p.m. against William Jessup.

San Marcos was the team the Raiders saw first at Biola, winning in four sets. They went on to defeat Westmont in five, sweep 22nd-ranked Vanguard and get swept by second-ranked Concordia (Calif.).

"It was interesting to see us play our first match against a team that had already played and was obviously talented," Rohlfing said. "To play like we did I thought was really extraordinary - with nerves and not knowing what we were and all that. And each match after that was progressively better."

SOU got the usual production it expected out of some returning staples in the lineup: setter Lauren McGowne totaled 161 assists, Paulla Pinheiro averaged 2.9 kills, 2.8 digs and .5 aces, Nikki Keller attacked at a .436 average and Emma Gasman averaged 2.1 kills per set while earning Cascade Conference Defensive Player of the Week accolades with 28 total blocks.

What the Raiders could not be sure about was the play of outside hitter Motade Atanda, but she didn't disappoint. Atanda, whose court time was limited last year, stepped right into a starting spot and delivered 20 kills in the first match, 21 in the second and 12 in the third - all team-highs.

"It's what we know she's capable of. She's unlike any athlete I've ever coached in terms of sheer athleticism," Rohlfing said. "What we're seeing is her ability as an athlete combining with her volleyball IQ, and last weekend it resulted in her being one of the five best players in the gym.

Atanda also played a big part in SOU's improved passing display. She averaged 2.7 digs, behind only new libero Brookelynn Cole's 4.5 and Pinheiro's 2.8. As a team, the Raiders allowed only 14 aces, held opponents to .154 hitting and out-blocked them 46 to 28.

"We discussed at the beginning of the year our ball control being better and it's been a major focus for us," Rohlfing said. "You can focus on it, but if you don't have the talent to actuate it then it doesn't mean anything. Paulla is brilliant in her understanding of the game and Brookelynn is an exceptional defensive player. So we have the potential to be extraordinary on the defensive side of things."

SOU's conference openers are Sept. 4 against Corban and Sept. 5 against Northwest Christian at Bob Riehm Arena.

Southern Oregon University's Lauren McGowne sets the ball during a recent practice. MT FILE PHOTO