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Raiders start season strong, look ahead to Lithia Motors Pavilion opener

Southern Oregon University head volleyball coach Josh Rohlfing could sense that his team had made huge strides from the end of 2017 season to the opening days of preseason camp.

The caveat, of course, was that there still was the “we’ll see once to get to matches what we are,” Rohlfing himself admitted, not trying to get too far ahead of himself when thinking about the opening of Lithia Motors Pavilion or the start of Cascade Conference play.

But, after an impressive 4-0 showing in Rocklin, Calif., right after getting a preseason national ranking of lucky No. 13, there’s a reason why the Raiders’ veteran head coach’s optimism hasn’t died down.

“What I thought was the best aspect of it all was the improvement throughout the tournament,” Rohlfing said. “We didn’t want to be the best team in the tournament, we wanted to be the best team we could be every time we went out.”

SOU didn’t just win all four of their matches, the Raiders swept right through all four of their opponents on Thursday and Friday.

The Raiders didn’t drop a set on their way to four straight wins against opposition from California — the University of Antelope Valley, Simpson University, Pacific Union College and host William Jessup University.

“As a coach, it’s exactly what you’re looking for,” Rohlfing said. “To see we could handle the beginning of the tournament where there was a lot of nerves, handle that well and play pretty much error-free volleyball after the first match, we cut (the mistakes) down immensely.

“I was very impressed with how we came out in that (final match of the tournament against William Jessup) and kept hammering.”

Leading the charge for the Raiders was junior right-side hitter Taylor Ristvedt, who was an absolute menace no matter the opponent.

Case in point: It took until her 30th kill attempt before she committed her first error.

Ristvedt and sophomore middle Makayla Hoyt combined to record 70 of the Raiders’ 163 kills in the tournament. Not only is that nearly half of SOU’s amount of kills through its first four games, but the two combined to record just nine errors as well.

In total, Southern Oregon registered a hitting average of at least .300 in four straight outings for the first time in nearly a decade.

“It was a little bit surprising. You go into the beginning of each year knowing there’s going to be some foibles since you haven’t played anybody,” Rohlfing said. “I think that they’re taking it to heart that every match they play they’re trying to improve. That was going in, and through every practice, that’s what we’ve talked about and make our statement. Throughout the tournament, it was consistent — and the team is starting to see that mantra. It’s good to see a team buying into that holistic aspect of things, too.”

Three matches remain until conference play begins on Thursday, Aug. 30, against Walla Walla University in Washington.

And those trio of matches, starting with Friday night’s 7 p.m. contest against Lewis-Clark State, will take place on the SOU campus at the school’s new crown jewel of a gym.

Lithia Motors Pavilion has been open for business since the spring, with the SOU volleyball team — as well as the football and soccer teams — practicing in their new digs since late-July.

“It’s exciting. I don’t know if there’s been a bunch of excitement around our program in a few years knowing that we’re opening this new place up and we’re playing a really good Lewis-Clark team,” Rohlfing said. “It’s just going to be an exciting time and we’re obviously going to gear toward the match and not be so concerned about the other stuff, but it’s a really cool time to be around SOU.”

The start of the Raiders’ three-day, six-team invitational in Ashland will be the first time since 2013 that they’ve played non-conference matches at home since the 2013 season.

And if the Raiders continue their early-season success, the grand opening at Lithia Motors Pavilion will see some pretty good volleyball played there as well.

“It’s really all about, for us, seeing who are we in the next big match,” Rohlfing said. “I feel like our schedule is kind of building to each subsequent match and it will continue to do that in terms of quality opponents. That’s the part that I really think will benefit us the most — when you’re looking at the big picture and the part of the schedule, the key is going to be to keep building going forward.”

Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.

Larry Stauth Jr./For the Daily TidingsSouthern Oregon University head volleyball coach Josh Rohlfing and the Raiders play their first-ever game at Lithia Motors Pavilion next Friday night against Lewis-Clark State. The Raiders will open their first on-campus home games in three years with a 4-0 record.