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Raiders gear up for College of Ozarks

ASHLAND — The Southern Oregon University volleyball will host the College of the Ozarks in the opening round of the NAIA Championships at noon on Saturday.

RANKINGS: SOU (22-5) was No. 17 in the final NAIA poll, a four-spot drop after last Friday’s Cascade Conference tournament semifinal loss to No. 24 Concordia, and the Raiders peaked at No. 11 despite starting the year unranked. The Bobcats (16-14) received votes in the season’s first two polls but have been unranked since the November 2011.

HOW THEY GOT HERE: The Raiders went 16-2 to share a regular-season Cascade Collegiate Conference title, their first since 2010. But because the CCC’s automatic bid went to the tournament champion (College of Idaho), SOU took the seventh of nine at-large bids based on its ranking. The Bobcats won the Midlands Collegiate Athletic Conference regular-season title with a 7-1 record and then earned the MCAC’s automatic bid by defeating Bellevue and Oklahoma Wesleyan in the conference tournament.

NAIA CHAMPIONSHIP HISTORY: With seven appearances in the NAIA Championships prior to this one, SOU has been in it more often than 27 of the other 35 teams in the field. The Raiders last advanced in 2011 — receiving a first-round bye to the 24-team final site — and got out of pool play and into the final 12 for the first time. The Raiders are 1-1 in opening-round matches, losing at home in five sets to Lewis-Clark State (Idaho) in 2009 and sweeping Holy Names (Calif.) at home in 2010.

College of the Ozarks is 1-3 in the tournament all-time, most recently losing a 2009 opening-round match at Saint Ambrose (Iowa) in five sets.

PLAYOFF PICTURE: Twelve teams already have spots reserved at the final site, the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa — the top 11 in the rankings plus championship host Briar Cliff (Iowa). The other 12 making the trip will be decided on campus sites in Saturday’s opening round. Once there, every team is guaranteed three matches Dec. 2-4 in pool play. Twelve teams will make it out of the six pools and engage in bracket play Dec. 5-6.

LET’S GET FAMILIAR: A late-November trip from Point Lookout, Mo., to Riehm Arena in Ashland was likely unthinkable for the Bobcats back when they were a reeling 6-12 team and losers of four straight one month into the season. Their challenge now is to make the trip worthwhile.

That hasn’t been an easy task against the Raiders, who are 9-0 at home and won 12 of 13 to end the regular season. They enter the match touting the No. 2-rated block-per-game average in the NAIA (2.8) and led the CCC in opponents’ hitting average (.133) with their best mark since 2010. Raider opponents have hit below .200 in 24 of 27 matches.

The youthful Bobcats — they of five freshmen and four sophomores on their roster — hit .183 and held opponents to a .173 clip. They come in winners of 10 of their last 12, needing five sets in just two of those triumphs.

SOU had won five consecutive five-set matches before losing a 2-0 lead to Concordia in the CCC semifinals. The Raiders are 3-2 against ranked foes this season.