ASHLAND — When football players like Ryan Retzlaff and Jeremy Scottow were coming up through the high school ranks, going to Southern Oregon University was never really an option.
It wasn’t because the school wasn’t interested, it’s just the Raiders program had lost a lot of the mystique that helped it reach the NAIA Championship Series quarterfinals in 2001 and ’02 under then head coach Jeff Olson.
“When we were really young there was a great program with Jeff Olson and those guys,” says Scottow, “but the program after that didn’t really have the kind of reputation that you would want from a hometown college. When I got older and was looking at colleges, (SOU) was not on my mind. It seemed like there were always guys getting in trouble and just not the vibe you wanted to be a part of as a player.”
A perceived dip in university support for the independent program and a loss of identity led to more head coaches (three) than winning seasons (two) from 2003-10.
“They weren’t a winning program and they had a bad reputation about them,” recalls Scottow, who was a blossoming receiver in the North Medford football program during that time. “What I gathered from my experiences of going to a few games and some camps in high school was that they were just kind of a bunch of punks and (junior college) transfers who were all about their stats and there was no team concept about them. I didn’t really know any of them but you could see arguing on the sidelines between coaches and players and I’d just heard that they weren’t all that nice.”
Across town, Retzlaff says his interest in SOU was only a passing one — as in passing up the Raiders was the norm unless you had no other choice and needed a fallback plan.
“Growing up in the valley everyone had the mindset just to get out of here,” says Retzlaff. “That’s what everyone wants to do and no one really considers SOU as their top choice for school or sports.”
It wasn’t to that extreme during Olson’s reign or in the years prior, with local players and those from Oregon mixing in nicely with others from California and surrounding states to put a quality product on the field as well as throughout the city of Ashland.
When the Raiders turned to Craig Howard in 2011 to revive the SOU program, he knew exactly what he wanted to do in order to bring fan interest back to Raider Stadium.
“We put ‘RV’ stickers on the back of our helmet and RV means Rogue Valley,” says Howard. “We’re not just Ashland’s team, we’re Rogue Valley’s team and we needed to get back to that. The missing link here in Southern Oregon football is you had a bunch of Californians but you didn’t have the Medford kid or the Grants Pass kid or Klamath Falls kid, and now we have those kids.”
And not only do the Raiders have them, they’re flourishing in Howard’s system built on character, strength and honor.
Medford’s Drew Gibson, who has gone on to All-American prominence at right tackle, was part of Howard’s initial recruiting class in 2011. Retzlaff also took a chance and transferred to SOU for Howard’s first season.
“When I came back and had this opportunity to play football, I didn’t really realize I was doing it for my community or anything else like that, I just wanted to play again,” says Retzlaff. “But when they rallied around me, I feel like everything was just that much better.”
“I feel like we’re kind of changing the mindset of whether people from the Rogue Valley want to come to SOU now,” he adds. “I feel like that started all when coach Howard and the rest of the staff got here.”
Scottow followed in 2012 and transferred in from Azusa Pacific after admittedly being homesick, and the Raiders received a big jolt of energy when Retzlaff’s young brother Matt, an all-state receiver/safety with considerable suitors, didn’t hesitate to also come on board at SOU in that second season.
“When I heard Matt was coming to SOU, it really sparked my attention more to come here,” says Scottow.
That foursome has been able to blend in nicely with Howard’s hand-picked recruits, who are brought in as much for their character as their football talent.
This year, Ryan Retzlaff ranks second on his team to Dylan Young but 13th in the nation with 68 receptions for 1,005 yards and nine touchdowns. Young, from Salem, leads the nation with 1,359 receiving yards to go with his 17 TDs, and his 72 catches rank eighth. Matt Retzlaff has 33 receptions for 424 yards and three TDs in his sophomore campaign, while the junior Scottow has 19 catches for 294 yards and two TDs.
Southern Oregon’s official roster also includes Eagle Point’s Steven Josephson and Caleb Ash, Klamath Falls’ Alex Stork, Grants Pass’ Nick Tatom and Medford’s Jack Singler to go with another seven local recruits waiting in the wings. Stork ranks fifth on the team with 53 tackles.
“We’re getting the best players from each one of these local high schools now, and you have to be the best players,” says Howard. “You can’t have the third or fourth-best player at St. Mary’s come over here and play. You’ve got to have the very best players at the local schools. And having that local connection now, all of a sudden the stands start to fill and all of a sudden the tailgates grow from just being my wife and a couple other parents to where it’s so packed now, it’s like a state fair out there.”
“The whole thing has changed,” Howard adds of the atmosphere surrounding his program, “but it starts with getting local players, because if you have no local players then there’s no local interest. There was a plan there and a design to go get these fine young men that are right here in our backyard. That way the local businessman and local fan, they can identify with Southern Oregon. The Drew Gibsons of the world mean something to him, some guy from Toledo, Ohio, wouldn’t, so it’s really important that we have local players.”
The benefits can be felt in the packed stands at Raider Stadium, which will be the site of Saturday’s playoff opener against MidAmerica Nazarene (Kan.) at 4 p.m. Eighth-ranked SOU (9-2) hasn’t had a home playoff game since 2002.
“It just brings me back to old memories, in all honesty, playing Pop Warner or backyard football where my family and everyone’s there to come watch you,” says Retzlaff. “It’s a great experience to have local support and I really feel like it brings SOU together. I feel like we play better and everything’s more connected when you have that.”
“We’re really making this place more desirable, for local kids and out of state kids as well,” Retzlaff says in crediting the entire SOU roster. “People want to come to SOU now because we’re a competitive school and I feel like the better we do, the more people want to come here. We’re really changing the program and changing the atmosphere, and that’s really incredible to be a part of.”
In the end, though, Scottow says the collection of young men at SOU and those who are guiding them has mattered more than where those players call home.
“Really it’s all about family here,” he says. “The guys that don’t buy into the system kinda filter their way out and the guys that do, everyone becomes closer. Character, strength, honor … the whole program is based around those values and that’s created a really tight-knit family that’s been able to do special things over the past few years.”
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry