SOU looking at 2022 as a fresh start
ASHLAND — Matt Struck looks at the final stretch of Southern Oregon University’s football season a year ago and knows that there’s a fine line between how the Raiders ended and what could have been.
The Raiders’ senior quarterback and Central Point native is in no mood to see history repeat itself.
“It’s up there and one of the most highlighted things,” said Struck. “I think that really we want to not so much focus on not repeating last year but getting better to where last year doesn’t happen again. That’s been our thing is to raise our standards and raise our expectations for the team.”
Same can be said for just about everybody else in Raider red.
SOU enters fall camp coming off a 3-7 season in 2021, the worst record of head coach Charlie Hall’s tenure since moving across town from Ashland High. Hall, now in his sixth season as head coach of his alma mater, and the Raiders opened preseason camp Thursday with the goal of getting back into the Frontier Conference mix as well as simply hoping that another year removed from no football in 2020 helps cure some of their ills.
“This year unlike a year ago, we can reflect on an entire year of preparation and see that the trend has been very positive,” said Hall. “A year ago, we’re still coming out of COVID, there’s a lot of different issues getting ready for the 2021 season, so I guess when you look back on since January, basically, it’s been good. There’s been a great deal of buy-in even though there has been some changes staff-wise, I think at this point it’s a change for the better.”
There were times last season in which the Raiders looked competitive with just about any of the Frontier Conference’s frontrunners.
They hit the midway point of the 2021 campaign at 3-2, with a dominant win over No. 18-ranked Eastern Oregon putting them over the .500 mark.
But as injuries mounted — including one to Struck — the Raiders closed last season on a five-game losing skid, falling in their final three games by a combined nine points to send them into the offseason thinking about what could have been.
“We had a really productive offseason,” said Struck, “and I think the upperclassmen and the ones who played (last season) really took ownership of the new stuff we’ve adopted and kind of forced it to the younger guys. We made it a learning experience.”
They’re doing what is only natural now — treating preseason camp as a fresh start.
But at the same time, they know they have a lot to prove.
SOU was picked to finish seventh in the Frontier Conference, according to the league coaches’ poll released on July 26.
“It’s just a reset,” said senior receiver Bryce Goggin, “and that’s how we’re seeing it, that’s how we’re thinking about it. We’ve got a great coaching staff that we’re really behind and excited about. The team’s really coming together and it feels different.”
The seventh-place prediction may be fuel for the fire as Southern Oregon prepares for its Aug. 27 season opener against Rocky Mountain College at Raider Stadium.
But what Hall is counting on more is that his team is simply more experienced than it was a season ago.
The 2021 roster was arguably the youngest and most inexperienced Hall has had since he was hired in March 2017 following the passing of Craig Howard.
The Raiders had 61 freshmen or redshirt freshmen on their roster a year ago, with the added caveat that SOU opted out of a modified 2021 spring schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, Hall needs his hands and toes to count how many players have starting experience on both sides of the ball.
“There’s no substitution for game reps, there’s no substitution for reps in general or in practice,” said Struck. “However much you want to spend in the film room or on the whiteboard, it only matters so much if you’re not out there doing it. I think that everyone’s taken the mental aspect and ran with it and that has really shown out here.”
A little more seasoned, the Raiders are hoping the experience they picked up a year ago — even with the losses that came with it — pays off in the present.
“The biggest thing is reference — we have references now,” said Goggin, an all-Frontier first-teamer in 2021. “We came in last year, we didn’t really know what to expect and our first game was kinda like our first time playing as a team. We just jumped in. But we now know what we had last year, we know what we have this year and now we’re ready to come a little differently.”
With Struck, a Missouri State transfer who emerged as the SOU’s starter early last season, back under center for one last ride, the Raiders have one of the most experienced signal-callers in the conference. In front of him, SOU’s offensive line returns starters at four of the five spots while two of Struck’s top targets from a year ago, the speedy Goggin and Christian Graney, also return for their senior seasons.
The Raiders will be under the direction of a new offensive coordinator in former receivers coach Austin Brown after Hall called plays last season. Brown has also served as a graduate assistant at Oregon State and Colorado.
The Raiders also feature a new defensive coordinator in Neil Fendell, who joins SOU after a six-year head coaching stint at Caldera High School in Bend from 2015-21.
It’s on defense where the Raiders have some of their most experienced players, including senior linebackers Jake Regino and Murphy McDowell, senior defensive lineman Alejandro Sanchez — whose 9 1/2 sacks last season were second-most in the Frontier — and senior defensive back Stokes Bothello.
Brown and Fendell were a part of the Raiders’ spring ball practices.
“That’s the beauty of both of these individuals is that they’re great teachers and they’re committed to a process of trying to learn,” said Hall of his new coordinators. “That was evident with how things were installed back in the spring in a certain methodical pattern, and the summer was similar. Once we get to fall, it’s almost like it’s the third time we’ve installed these plays and in a somewhat similar order. I’m excited about that growth.”
No matter what side of the ball it is, though, the Raiders’ main motivation is to get back into the mix in the Frontier Conference, which saw a trio of teams — College of Idaho, Montana Western and Rocky Mountain — all tie for a share of the conference title with identical 7-3 records last year.
SOU does have the advantage of having all three of last season’s top teams coming to Ashland for games this year, with College of Idaho set to visit Raider Stadium three weeks after RMC on Sept. 17.
Montana Western enters 2022 as the coaches’ favorite to win the conference title after getting four of the eight first-place votes.
“Oh my gosh, it’s everything,” said Goggin of potentially getting back into the Frontier Conference mix. “We’re just excited to get out there. There’s a few teams that we wish we could get back and this is our chance.
“We’re ready, we got the feet wet and we’re ready to go now. It’s on us.”
Reach reporter Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.