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No. 11 SOU heads to Klamath Falls with eyes on first place

A rare patch of free time awaits the 11th-ranked Southern Oregon University volleyball team starting Thursday.

Whether the Raiders (14-3 overall, 8-1 Cascade Conference) spend that time lounging in first place will be dictated by what happens tonight when they play Oregon Tech (17-6, 5-4) at 7 p.m. in Klamath Falls.

Two dates into a five-match stretch away from Riehm Arena, the Raiders have already discovered a new way to play: with an early lead. They were the first to 15 points in 11 of their first 27 conference sets they played in their first seven matches, still winning 19 of them, but hit 15 first in all seven frames of their wins at Northwest and Evergreen to make for a more comfortable Washington stay.

Their efforts to make that a trend will become more strenuous with the Owls pushing back. SOU and OIT already tussled to a five-set decision on Nov. 10, and even though it ended with the Raiders on top for the 23rd-straight time in the series, the Owls made their point.

"They're a very good team and they put pressure on you in a lot of different ways," SOU coach Josh Rohlfing said of the Owls. "They serve you really aggressively, and if you get out of system against them you can get into a lot of trouble."

For now, they remain on the outside looking in at a top-four in the CCC that has been impenetrable for the last three seasons. Since the start of 2012, the Raiders, College of Idaho, Concordia and Eastern Oregon are a combined 122-2 against the rest of the league (including the postseason), and Northwest Christian is responsible for both of those losses.

After falling short in Ashland, the Owls nearly got their breakthrough moment at home against C of I but watched it slip away, along with their 2-1 lead, in five sets.

The Raiders would prefer to put it off a little longer. They haven't lost at Danny Miles Court since 2001.

Last week today: SOU's defensive prowess shined through again in the triumphs at Northwest and Evergreen, which were the 22nd consecutive wins against both opponents. Northwest attacked at a .151 average and Evergreen at .138.

"I felt really good about our performances, knowing that was a tough trip and those were both sleeper matches against some talented teams," Rohlfing said. "We really settled in well after losing the first set (at Northwest)."

The Raiders have still coerced all but one opponent into sub-.200 averages –they'd let eight foes exceed that number by this point last year – and have yet to let an opponent out-block them. They rank second in the NAIA at 2.98 blocks per set.

Motade Atanda and Emma Gasman returned home to praise from the CCC, giving the Raiders a sweep of offensive and defensive player-of-the-week honors for the second week in a row. Atanda totaled 51 kills and 17 digs on the weekend, including a 20-kill performance at Northwest on 40 attacks, and Gasman had eight assisted and three solo blocks.

Lauren McGowne also piled onto her totals with 83 assists, and Paulla Pinheiro had 27 kills and 22 digs. Abbie Hanser, who has stepped in for injured starter Nikki Keller in the middle, impressed again with 10 assisted blocks.

"Abbie was ready to step in and has done a great job solidifying us up front," Rohlfing said. "Offensively it's tough to replace Nikki, but as a whole, Abbie brings something different."

Here comes Hootie: Kelsey Sampson hit the Raiders up for 12 kills, albeit on 41 swings, the first time around and leads the Owls at 2.38 per set… Renee Bauman averages 2.29 kills, while Mykala Rubey (.320 average) and Madisen Garlie (.234, 1.6 blocks) are among the league's statistical leaders… OIT ranks fifth or worse in the CCC in every team category except blocks, averaging 2.4 per set to rank fourth.