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No. 11 SOU volleyball team returns home for two key matches

Riding a seven-match win streak, the 11th-ranked Southern Oregon volleyball team is in the process of setting itself up for a stirring finish against the Cascade Collegiate Conference elite in the last two weeks of the regular season.

Not so fast, though. The CCC's up-and-comers, the Evergreen State Geoducks and Northwest Eagles, would like nothing more this weekend than to complicate those good times before they even get here.

The Raiders (17-3 overall, 11-1 CCC), who are currently in a first-place deadlock with No. 8 Eastern Oregon, will face all three of the other top-four teams over the next 18 days with their first CCC title since 2010 on the line. But they've been briefed on the dangers of looking past Evergreen (12-14, 3-10) and Northwest (11-13, 4-9), which will visit Riehm Arena at 7 p.m. on Friday and at 5 p.m. on Saturday, regardless of 22-match win streaks against both teams.

The Raiders had no such issues during the three-week road swing they just completed, which began with a trip to Washington state.

"We're really excited to be home, but I was so impressed by how consistent we were in our preparation and how well we played on the road," SOU coach Josh Rohlfing said. "We took a road trip that's a month long and made it feel much shorter. I can't say enough about how mature (the players) were through the whole situation."

A maddening defense kept the Raiders on their roll. They coaxed opponents into a .130 hitting average during the five-match trip, keeping their league-best average against at .123 on the season. Sixteen straight foes have been under .200.

Lauren McGowne garnered CCC player of the week kudos for her 69 assists in six sets last weekend, and she leads the league at 11.4 per set. Outside hitters Motade Atanda and Paula Pinheiro continued to carry the attacking load, and they rank second (3.8) and fourth (3.5) in CCC kills per set. Pinheiro has been in double-figure kills in 10 straight matches, and Atanda has done the same in 11 of her last 12.

About Evergreen: The Geoducks ended a six-match skid last Saturday in four sets against Warner Pacific. Their biggest problem has been defense — they rank ninth in average against (.231) and eighth in blocks per set (1.3), managing half of SOU's league-best clip of 2.7 — but they feature the ninth- and 10th-most prolific hitters in the league in senior Brandee Victorino (3 kills/set) and sophomore Nicole Pittelkau (2.8). Their libero, Natimia Barker-Doss, is sixth in digs (4.3/set).

SOU rolled in the first meeting, 25-17, 25-17, 25-21, and hasn't given a set to Evergreen since 2005.

"We played them in the afternoon the day after their five-set match against Oregon Tech and they might have been a little tired," Rohlfing said. "I've watched them quite a few times this year, though, and they have skilled players at all positions. It's another challenge for sure."

About Northwest: Suspicions of the Eagles' rise were heightened when they took a 2-0 lead at College of Idaho, the preseason conference favorite, before losing two weeks ago. Then those suspicions were confirmed last week when they became the first team outside of the top four to defeat a top-four outfit with a four-set win over Concordia last week. That upset came a night after they swept Concordia to end a five-match losing streak.

Sophomore hitter Dakota Adams had the hot hand over the weekend with 27 kills on 53 swings. She's one of 10 players on the Northwest roster of either freshman or sophomore standing. Also in that group is freshman Amanda Waterman, who leads the team at 2.7 kills per set, and sophomore Leia Roy, who leads the league in digs per set (5.4) and is second in aces (0.4/set) behind Pinheiro.

The Eagles took the first set from SOU in Kirkland before losing 23-25, 25-20, 25-22, 25-17. The Raiders lead the all-time series, 38-1.

"They're impressive. They're really impressive," Rohlfing said. "They're all freshmen and sophomores who are starting to look like sophomores and juniors. We have a lot of respect for what they're doing."