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SOU ready for upstart Kansas Wesleyan

ASHLAND — Thirteen years after its last postseason appearance, the NAIA welcomed Kansas Wesleyan back to the Championship Series on Sunday when the 16-team field was announced.

The 10th-ranked Coyotes' reward for the best season in program history — an improbable 10-1 run that was preceded by a 2-9 showing in 2014 — is a 1,700-mile trip from Salina, Kan., for a date with the defending national champion.

Seventh-ranked Southern Oregon University returns to Raider Stadium for Saturday's 4 p.m. first-round affair, attempting to take a step toward the first championship repeat since Sioux Falls (S.D.) defended its crown in 2009. The Raiders, who spent four weeks this season ranked No. 1, ended their 8-2 Frontier Conference slate on a high note last week with a 48-37 win at Eastern Oregon.

The three previous national champions are also in: Grand View (Iowa) (2013), Marian (Ind.) (2013) and Saint Xavier (Ill.) (2011). Overall, seven teams from the 2014 field are back, while Point (Ga.) and Reinhardt (Ga.) are the only first-timers.

HOW THEY GOT HERE: A 21-17 loss in Ashland to fifth-ranked Montana Tech was all that kept SOU from its second Frontier title in four years. By virtue of winning the conference, the Diggers earned an automatic berth in the field, and the Raiders were granted the second of six at-large bids.

After winning their final four games by an average of 27.8 points and finishing second in the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference with an 8-1 record, the Coyotes were ranked high enough to take the fourth at-large bid. Their only loss was 14-7 on Oct. 17 at No. 8 Tabor (Kan.) — but that was also the only ranked opponent they've faced. Dating back to early 2013, they've dropped eight straight against ranked foes.

PLAYOFF PICTURE: Quarterfinal and semifinal games will be played on campus sites on Nov. 28 and Dec. 5, and the title game will be held in Daytona Beach, Fla., for the second straight year on Dec. 19. The playoff is not bracketed; the NAIA office will determine the next round's pairings and hosts on Sunday with revenue and geography traditionally being key considerations.

If all first-round hosts win — and they went 8-0 in 2014 and are 33-7 in the last five years — SOU's next likely opponent would be No. 2 Baker (Kan.), which is 10-1 and has a first-round date with No. 15 Point.

MONTH OF MELVIN: SOU running back Melvin Mason appears ready to pick up where he left off last postseason after rushing 16 times for 91 yards and three touchdowns in last week's win. He has nine rushing TDs and 10 total this season, bringing his career total to 36 TDs — the third-highest in Raider history.

He also had 10 scores at this time last year before erupting for eight in the last three rounds of the playoffs, with four against both Carroll and Marian.

For the season, the Raiders are led in rushing yardage by Mason (674) and quarterback Tanner Trosin (639), who have pushed them to a team average of 5.6 yards per attempt on 41.5 attempts per game. Nine Raiders have contributed to 35 rushing TDs, 10 more than they scored during the 2014 regular season in one extra game.

REZTLAFF ON THE MEND: One especially encouraging development of last week's win was the presence of Matt Retzlaff, who caught seven passes for 74 yards with an 18-yard TD and returned two kickoffs for a total of 86 yards.

In and out for the latter part of the season due to injury, the all-conference performer had caught just five passes since the end of September.

He enters the postseason with 29 career TDs — including 24 receiving, tying him with his brother Ryan for the fifth-most in SOU history — and was SOU's top receiving threat in last year's playoffs with 23 catches for 361 yards and three scores.

ABOUT KANSAS WESLEYAN: The Coyotes may not have been to the playoffs in a while, but this is not some downtrodden program: They appeared in the top-25 rankings in parts of 10 seasons from 2000-12. They got back this season with the fourth-best offense in the NAIA in terms of average yardage (518.4) and first downs (26.1), and a defense that is fifth in total sacks (34 ) and ninth in opponents' scoring (16.7).

Behind senior quarterback Jake Curran, the Coyotes have been held under 27 points just once all season. Curran averages 294.7 passing yards, the fourth-most in the nation, and has 34 total TDs (28 passing) with 10 interceptions.

Joe Vela (75.4 yards, 5 TDs) and Albert Geason (72.8 yards, 7 TDs) are the team's leading receivers, and Miles Balthazor is the leading rusher (672 yards, 10 TDs). Defensively, Tyrone Wright (5) and Michael Guerrero (4) have combined for nine interceptions, and Christian McQueen has seven sacks.

Southern Oregon seniors Karrington Jone (6) and Jaylenn Hart (2) take down a Montana Tech runner Nov. 7. The Raiders tackle Kansas Wesleyan Saturday. PHOTO BY LARRY STAUTH JR.