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Raiders ready for Lithia Motors Pavilion debut

The Southern Oregon University volleyball team has been practicing in Lithia Motors Pavilion ever since construction was completed in the spring.

Four months later, the much-anticipated grand opening is here.

After 1,007 days of waiting, the Raiders are back home.

Undefeated and No. 13-nationally ranked Southern Oregon tonight will open the doors to both its crown-jewel of a gym as well as the three-day Raider Invitational, with Lewis-Clark State (Idaho) the first opponent to step into Lithia Motors Pavilion and try to slow down the Raiders’ red-hot start to the 2018 season.

Two years of playing off campus is now a thing of the past. Home sweet home is officially back on campus.

“We’re super excited and so ready to have our own space — especially after two years of not having the space,” said SOU junior outside hitter Taylor Ristvedt, the reigning Cascade Conference Attacker of the Week. “We’re all just ready to compete and get after it and show everybody what we’re capable of, what we’ve been working towards the last couple of years.”

The Lithia Motors Pavilion project cost a total of $24 million to complete — as well as another $17.7 million in student fees for the brand new student rec center — and has been nearly three years in the making since McNeal Pavilion was torn down.

Since then, the SOU volleyball team — along with both of SOU’s basketball teams and the men’s and women’s wrestling programs — called Ashland High’s North Mountain Gymnasium home.

The hope was to have the new gym open by the end of the 2017-18 basketball season, but construction wasn’t fully completed until late spring.

With the hanging of banners celebrating SOU’s conference and national titles in every sport put on each of the walls behind the stands on Wednesday, the Raiders’ new digs are starting to truly feel like their own.

“It’s really kind of a surreal feeling,” SOU head coach Josh Rohlfing said. “I’ve never opened a gym. I left Ashland High when they were renovating their gym, so I didn’t have that opportunity and get that experience. For me, it’s been super exciting. Today we had a team meeting and I brought them (in the gym) first because I wanted them to see this — it looks big time. I think people are going to be excited and there’s going to be a good energy about it. I feel like we’ve truly changed with it — as paint went on the walls and banners went up, paint went on us as we went up and grew with it.”

For about half of SOU’s roster, tonight’s matchup against Lewis-Clark State will be their first home game on campus at the collegiate level.

Even for their veteran head coach, the time away from playing on campus has been hard to wrap his head around.

“I sent out an email to a bunch of campers and coaches in the valley saying that it’s the first time back on campus since 2015 and it really hit me at that point,” Rohlfing said. “I couldn’t believe it’s been that long. You start to just push things away because it’s just not realistic to think about it. More than anything, it’s just that feeling of excitement that I get to walk out of my office and be here and (the players) get to walk out of their team room and be here. It’s just unbelievable and I don’t know how to encapsulate that better than that feeling of walking out that door and getting on the court.”

As much as there is hoopla over the grand opening of such a big part of the athletic department, there are still games to focus on as well.

The Raiders, who have started a season 4-0 for the second time in Rohlfing’s decade-plus as head coach, will face William Jessup University and Simpson University on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, after tonight’s home opener.

Rohlfing expects very good competition throughout the weekend — especially against Lewis-Clark State (2-1), which has already claimed a win over Corban, last year’s CCC champion, this season.

SOU rolled to straight-set wins over both William Jessup and Simpson at the WJU-hosted tournament in Rocklin, Calif., last Wednesday and Thursday.

With the start of conference play and a trip to Washington waiting in the distance, the emphasis to keep the early-season momentum going just so happens to be combined with the desire to start the Lithia Motors Pavilion era off on the right foot.

“I think it would be super crucial just to continue to play the way that we did last weekend,” Ristvedt said. “The outcome will be what it will be, but it’s more of a process and how we play will get us there. Being able to implement what we’ve been working on so that they can get us to where they need to be, and being able to see how we grow as a team will be super cool heading into this weekend and conference, too.”

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 redshirt sophomore Makayla Hoyt, seen here during preseason practice, and the Raiders will play their first game at Lithia Motors Pavilion tonight against Lewis-Clark State, the first game in the six-team, three-day Raider Invitational.