Even if he stays at Southern Oregon University for 15-plus years, Josh Rohlfing will have a hard time catching his predecessor and friend Paul Elliott on the school's list of all-time coaching victories.

But thanks to solid recruiting efforts by both Elliott and Rohlfing, and a little luck, the Raiders' new head volleyball coach will probably get off to a fantastic start in 2007.

Southern has every major contributor back from a team that finished second in the Cascade Conference regular season last year. It also received a major break when former Ashland High star setter and former University of Oregon recruit Lindsey Stone transferred to SOU. That instantly gives the Raiders a Division I-caliber distributor who can help the team take full advantage of a major strength: its long list of capable hitters.

But as good as the Raiders look on paper, there is at least one major question mark: How will they respond to Rohlfing, the program's first new coach in 16 years? According to junior defensive specialist Katie Pluchos, the transition so far has been smooth.

"Paul (Elliott) was such a great coach and Josh and Paul are really good friend, and Josh has a lot of the same qualities that Paul has," said Pluchos, who had 336 digs last season, second on the team. "He's been so considerate with the seniors because we all loved Paul so much. We've all been working really hard to get to know each other and that's the main thing."

Rohlfing has been equally impressed with the way the Raiders have adjusted.

"The athletes could have been, especially the six seniors, 'Who is this guy? We're going to do it our way, the way we've always done it.' But not once has it been like that," he said.

"They've been very receptive, from learning new techniques to developing a new philosophy for the program. All sorts of different levels of the program have changed, but they've been character people and have accepted it."

The Rohlfing era officially begins Friday, when SOU travels to Fresno, Calif., for the always-loaded Fresno Pacific Invitational. There, they'll face three of the top 11 teams in the nation, including No. 11 Biola University, No. 8 Azusa Pacific and No. 2 Fresno Pacific.

While SOU should be strong at the net offensively, it's the defense that Rohlfing is most excited about. All-Conference middle blocker Mia Wortel (5-foot-11), a junior, and senior middle Richelle Millsap (6-1) combined for 181 blocks last season and should, along with Shanna Claflin (5-10) give the Raiders one of the best front lines in the league, if not the region. In the back row, Pluchos and libero Emily Stone, a junior, combined for 775 digs in 2006 and are also high on the list of the conference's best defenders.

"Defense is a big strength, I think we're pretty scrappy," Rohlfing said.

Offensively, Stone and fellow Ashland High alum Molly Grossmann, a senior, will take turns setting the ball, and they'll have plenty of options. Wortel led the Raiders last year in both kills (365) and attack percentage (.368). Senior outside hitter Jaclyn Hamilton-Smith added 260 kills, and Millsap wasn't far behind with 253, plus a solid .289 attack clip.

Potential aside, the battle to determine who will be SOU's starting outside hitter is ongoing.

"We're still trying to find out completely who we are on the outside," Rohlfing said. "We're working through it, though. We have some great people there."

The Raiders only have a few weeks left to figure that out between now and their Cascade Conference opener Sept. 7 against league favorite and sixth-ranked Albertson. That match should reveal plenty about both teams. The Coyotes were rated No. — in a preseason coaches poll, picking up all 11 first-place votes. SOU was rated No. 2.

The Raiders' first home match isn't until Evergreen State comes to town Sept. 14.

SOU was unranked in the first NAIA top-25 poll. It will be gunning for its first trip to the national tournament since 2004.

"That's what our goal is, to win the regional tournament," Wortel said.

Rohlfing agreed, but added that the Raiders are a work in progress.

"Are we going to come and dominate every single match in the beginning of the year and then fizzle out in the end, or are we going to build to develop a team, get that base and that concept and then hopefully make a run at nationals at the end of the year?" Rohlfing said. "That's our goal. That's something that we're starting to talk about."

Sports editor can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or joe.