The Southern Oregon University volleyball team knows it got a tough draw for the first round of the Cascade Conference tournament in Northwest Christian.
An easy one was as difficult as ever to come by this year.
The conference championships begin at 7 tonight when the fifth-seeded Beacons (17-10, 10-8 conference) visit the No. 4 Raiders (16-9, 13-5) inside Bob Riehm Arena.
Oregon Tech is at Concordia in the other quarterfinal. The semifinal and championship rounds will move to College of Idaho, where the Coyotes, who won the regular season title, and second-seeded Eastern Oregon will be waiting.
Josh Rohlfing, SOU's seventh-year head coach, believes that the parity among the league's top teams could make this tourney especially memorable. The Raiders have defeated every team but Concordia; Concordia defeated everyone but C of I and Eastern; and C of I and Eastern split their season series.
"There are a handful of teams that I think can win it, probably for the first time since I've been here," Rohlfing said. "Usually we say that but really only a couple teams have a shot. This year it's actually true."
The Raiders haven't forgotten about the Sept. 7 sweep they endured at the hands of Northwest Christian, either. SOU won the most recent meeting in Ashland on Oct. 18, 25-22, 25-17 and 25-13.
Both matches, Rohlfing thinks, were swung by the serve-receive battle. The Beacons' aggressive approach translated to 12 service aces in their win, but the Raiders allowed just two the second time around. NCU averaged 2.02 per set to lead the league with three of the top four individuals.
"They ran roughshod over us the first time and I expect that to be the determining factor again — whether they can serve like they did and if we can control it," Rohlfing said.
The Beacons feature two dynamic attackers in Maren Mansfield (2.79 kills per set) and Chandler Gabrio (.276 hitting average). Gabrio also edged SOU's Paulla Pinheiro for the CCC's most aces per set, 0.60 to 0.55 while setter Cori Wallace's 11.20 assists per set were second in CCC play only to SOU freshman Lauren McGowne's 11.31.
SOU junior middle Nikki Keller finished on top of the league in hitting average at .413, and Emma Gasman's .375 tied for second, helping the Raiders to the CCC's best team average. Mona Goudarzian was fourth in the league in kills per set (3.44), Paulla Pinheiro seventh (3.20) and Gasman 15th (2.73).
C of I's Janel Porters was first in digs, totaling 372 in 64 sets. In the same number of sets, SOU's Renee Yomtob had 371.
The Raiders last won a CCC tournament championship in 2010. They lost in the 2012 semifinals to Eastern Oregon.
"We talk about it all year, and it's probably a cliché at this point, but we want to be at our best right now," Rohlfing said. "You can't change much about performance this time of year, but the last two weeks have shown the coaching staff a lot of tactical stuff that could make us more effective and we're excited about that."
There were no big surprises when the fields for the NAIA men's and women's cross country national championships were announced Monday, and that was a good thing for Southern Oregon.
The top-ranked Raiders headline the men's field and will go in as the favorite for the second straight year, and the Raider women received the three individual bids they were hoping for, too.
Alexandra Rudd, Summer Cano and Rebecca Lupescu qualified for the spots by placing in the top 15 overall at the Cascade Conference Championships and top five among individuals not going to nationals with a qualifying team. College of Idaho won the meet and got the CCC's automatic bid, and Northwest Christian's team at-large berth made the inclusion of SOU's runners official.
The meet will be held in Lawrence, Kan., on Nov. 23. The fields are made up of 32 teams on both sides with 103 individual women qualifiers and 97 men.
The SOU men finished second last year, third in 2011 and were national champions in 2010. The Raider women are up from just one qualifier in 2012.
British Columbia is the women's defending champion and ranked No. 1 again.
The CCC's Eastern Oregon and College of Idaho were awarded at-large bids to the men's race.