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No. 18 SOU to lean on leaders

ASHLAND — The last two seasons in particular, Southern Oregon University's volleyball team has been adept at adjusting to new identities depending on personnel. Two years ago, an often light-hitting lineup turned into a defensive powerhouse and one of the top blocking teams in the NAIA. Last year, the Raiders rode their most efficient attack since 1998 to a second straight appearance in the national tournament.

Considering the losses of four starters (including every regular at outside hitter) and the presence of a combined 15 freshmen and sophomores on a 19-person roster, the identity of 10th-year coach Josh Rohlfing's latest cast could take some time to pinpoint. Whatever it is, it's a safe bet that it will be shaped by All-Americans Emma Gasman and Lauren McGowne, who find themselves in the same situation that their elder teammates were in when Gasman and McGowne broke into the starting lineup as freshmen in 2013 — last-chance seniors relying on unproven teammates to stay competitive.

"We're young and talented," said Rohlfing, whose 203-65 record at SOU gives him the sixth-best winning percentage (.757) among active NAIA coaches. "It's going to be a different brand of volleyball. We were awesome last year, but our tempo is going to have to be a little faster in order to play to our strengths, and the key to that will be our ability to pass."

PRESEASON POLLS: The Raiders were picked to finish third in the Cascade Conference coaches' poll and are No. 18 in the NAIA preseason poll. They've finished outside of the CCC's top three just twice since 1988 and have shared four regular-season titles since Rohlfing took over in 2007 (doing so most recently in 2013 with Eastern Oregon). They were selected behind No. 8 EOU, last year's regular season champ, and No. 11 College of Idaho, last year's CCC tournament champ. This marks the fifth time they've been included in the national preseason poll during Rohlfing's tenure.

LAST YEAR: The 2015 season was marked by the 1,000th win in program history on Aug. 28 at Cal Merced, the team's highest win total (26-6) since 2007, a runner-up showing in the CCC (17-3) and the Raiders' fourth appearance at the NAIA Championships in the past six years. Following a home win over La Sierra (Calif.) in the NAIA's opening round, the Raiders were among 24 teams to advance to the final site in Sioux City, Iowa, and went 1-2 in pool play, falling one win short of advancing to the 12-team knockout round for the first time. They were 13th in the national postseason poll for the second year in a row.

FIRST UP: SOU opens its season today and Friday in La Mirada, Calif., traveling for the sixth year in a row to Biola's Summer Slam Invitational, which is annually among the most loaded preseason tournaments in the NAIA. The Raiders will remain in the area early next week for three more nonleague matches, and by the time they return they will have seen four top-25 opponents. CCC play will then begin on the road, Sept. 2at Corban and Sept. 3 at Northwest Christian.