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Penza: A way-too-early look at 2019 storylines

Now that we’re officially a couple of days into 2019, let’s get completely ahead of ourselves.

Not just a day or two, either.

Maybe try and channel our inner Doc Brown from ‘Back to the Future’ and look ahead a few months. Think fourth-dimensionally, if you will.

There was plenty to like about the 2018 sports year for Ashland-based teams. Whether it was the dominance on the track of EJ Holland in the spring or the kinds of seasons that the Southern Oregon University men’s soccer and volleyball teams put forward, there was no lack for excitement.

And it’s not like most of the cast of characters from 2018 are suddenly up and leaving come the new year.

It may be just a couple of days into the 2019 calendar year, but here are some things that yours truly is looking forward to covering over the next 12 months.

Second half of the college and prep basketball season

Let me just go ahead and throw this out there: The SOU men’s first game of 2019, next Tuesday night at Lithia Motors Pavilion, is against Oregon Tech.

And we’re off!

The bulk of the league schedules is about to arrive for both SOU and Ashland High. With it comes very different kinds of scenarios for each team based on how the first handful of league games went.

For the SOU men, the first thing that jumps off the page is just how tough the Cascade Conference is this season, with Oregon Tech leading the pack at 5-1.

For the SOU women, who are currently two games back in the loss column behind first-place Eastern Oregon, a string of five straight home games starting this afternoon against Walla Walla (Wash.) is the biggest chance to get some midseason momentum going knowing that they have ground to make up in the conference standings.

The Ashland boys, playing in the incredibly tough Midwestern League, simply need to find consistency to be competitive against the big boys of the MWL.

For the Ashland girls, it’s pretty simple after surpassing their win total from last season already — get that ever-elusive win No. 1 in MWL play and put an end to their lengthy league losing streak.

SOU softball’s encore to its encore

So how do you follow up a 46-win season and your first trip to the NAIA World Series?

With a 51-win season, a second straight trip to the NAIA World Series and a third-place finish in Florida.

Yes, outside of winning a national title, the Raiders’ season was about as good as it gets on the diamond.

Now we get the encore to the encore.

The difference in this season compared to last is that, instead of trying to replace nearly the entirety of its starting lineup the year before, SOU will now try to replace the production of two of the best players the program has ever seen come through its doors in Kelsey Randall and Harlee Donovan.

Seeing as its been two straight years ending their season at the national site, I’ve got the feeling that nobody in a Raider uniform wants to end their season anywhere else going forward.

EJ Holland’s continued brilliance

One of the first things I was told when I took this job around this time last January was to watch out for a blooming running star with the last name of Holland.

Young EJ, you have not disappointed.

Holland can probably count on one hand the amount of races he didn’t win over the past 12 months. He racked up three state titles along the way — his double at the state meet last spring and then his cross country title in November after coming oh so close as a sophomore.

In a track program — and Rogue Valley community as a whole — that has plenty of running history, Holland has made quite the name for himself well before his senior season has even arrived.

Holland doesn’t mind having the target on his back, and it’s not like that’s going to change over the next 18 months while he’s still running for the Grizzlies.

And knowing how much Holland enjoys the entire process that goes into getting to where he’s currently at, he’s a young man that’s only going to be striving to get his times even better as 2019 goes on.

Which is a scary thought for the competition.

There’s also something else to pay attention to when it comes to 2019 for this young man: Holland’s decision on where he will run collegiately.

Ashland High football and baseball teams another year older

Youth and inexperience seemed to be a common thread between the Ashland High baseball and football teams last year.

In the spring, the Ashland baseball team was younger than pretty much every team it went up against, while the football squad was a team that had plenty of potential but also didn’t have a ton of experience on the varsity level.

After a productive summer in legion ball, the Grizzlies are obviously hoping their 2019 season is more successful, with head coach Nick Hall basically having everybody back from last season’s team.

The Grizzlies’ core under head football coach Beau Lehnerz will almost all be seniors come kickoff in Week 1, with a lot of hopes pinned to the now-experienced group of players that Ashland will field come the fall.

These might be the two most noticeable teams that will try to prove the “another year older is another year wiser” saying to be true.

SOU football’s rebound

Speaking of teams coached by somebody with the last name of Hall...

It says something about program expectations when finishing with a 6-4 record is a relative disappointment, but that’s where the Raiders found themselves after winning their season finale at Raider Stadium back in mid-November.

SOU entered the season with a lofty preseason ranking after advancing to the national semifinals in 2017. The Raiders’ motto on the season was all about momentum — and after four games, all wins, that was true.

But SOU’s four-game losing streak coming out of the bye week killed any momentum the Raiders had and killing postseason aspirations in the process.

This time of year, head coach Charlie Hall and his coaching staff is in full-on recruiting mode. And the Raiders will have a lot of pieces to replace from the 2018 squad — their entire starting offensive line, a host of veterans and some of the team’s most-experienced players on defense.

A top-4 preseason ranking won’t be coming SOU’s way come in August. But the goal will be to get back there simply because that’s where the bar for this program has been set for the better part of the last decade.

SOU men’s soccer’s encore

The man whose office is right next door to Charlie Hall certainly made quite the first impression this past fall.

And when it comes to where Davie Carmichael wants to take the SOU program, there’s only direction — onward and upward.

The coaching transition went as smooth as it possibly could, and the results were as good as ever for a program that is just 4 years old.

The Raiders were ranked nationally for the first time ever, won their first-ever national playoff game and carried the nation’s longest active unbeaten streak (20 games) into its NAIA Round of 16 game against Rio Grande (Ohio) in Southern California.

So much of SOU’s success was chalked up to its dominant defense and Carmichael seemingly getting contributions from everywhere he looked on his roster.

With Carmichael getting the chance to put together his first recruiting class as head coach — all of last year’s class was brought in by his predecessor, Biniam Afenegus — seeing what this Scotsman is able to add to what is already an extremely talented roster coming back will be pretty interesting to see.

SOU volleyball’s encore

One of the first things I talked about was a talented group of young women at SOU, and that is also how I’ll wrap this up.

“Encore” has become a trend in this column — and for good reason.

When you have seasons like the SOU volleyball team just had, it’s easy to understand why you want to continue the good times going.

So much of the Raiders’ 2018 season was about the foundation that they had laid the previous two years where they were hanging around the .500 mark overall. It was about building experience, building the skill level of a young team and establishing a rapport that would end up vaulting them back into the mix in the Cascade Conference.

The end result was a 29-5 record, a share of the CCC regular-season title, the conference tournament title and a spot in the quarterfinals of the NAIA national tournament, the furthest the program has ever gone before.

And there’s also this: A lot like with the SOU men’s soccer team, the vast majority of the core group of players that made 2018 so successful will be back in 2019.

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

Southern Oregon University Redshirt Sophomore Wyatt Hutchinson winds up to throw downfield against Montana-Western at Raider Stadium on Saturday.(PHOTO BY: LARRY STAUTH JR)
Southern Oregon University freshman Tayler Walker reacts after scoring against St. Francis, as teammate Hannah Wessel looks on, at US Cellular Fields on Wednesday.[PHOTO BY: LARRY STAUTH JR]