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Raider men favored to win ninth straight

ASHLAND — The Southern Oregon University men's cross country team is expected to continue its reign on top of the Cascade Conference, as it became the unanimous favorite to win its ninth straight title in the coaches' preseason poll.

The poll, which was released Monday by the league office, has the Raiders in the No. 4 slot on the women's side behind defending NAIA champion Northwest Christian, College of Idaho and Oregon Tech.

Among the men's runners slated to be back when camp opens in a couple weeks are Ray Schireman, the CCC's defending individual champion; Connor Cushman, who placed fourth at the CCC Championships; Dylan Alexander, who won the 2015 NAIA track and field 5,000-meter title, missed last cross country season due to injury and came back for another All-American finish in the 5K during the spring; and Caleb Diaz, who placed 56th at the national meet.

Schireman and Diaz are former North Medford runners.

SOU went unchallenged at the CCC Championships last season, compiling 29 teams points compared to runner-up College of Idaho's 48, and was ranked No. 1 going into the NAIA's championship meet. However, a sudden illness kept Schireman and All-American Jared Hixon out of the race, ending their shot at a title.

The Raider women will come into the season with high expectations of themselves considering their 14th-place finish at the NAIA Championships last season and the fact that they return six of the seven runners who competed at the national meet: defending NAIA track and field 10K champion Jessa Perkinson, Aspen Abbott, Kayle Blackmore, Marisa D'Orfani, Margarita Lauer and Braana Weber.

SOU's women finished fourth at last year's CCC Championships, just two behind Oregon Tech, and the circuit is shaping up to be arguably the most competitive in the country again.

Both the men's and women's teams will start the season on Sept. 9 at Western Oregon's Ash Creek Invitational.