Home was always a long car ride or, most recently, a plane trip away for Corey O'Neill.




For three years following his graduation from South Medford, O'Neill spent his time at three different schools chasing his baseball and football dreams.




Now 21 years old, O'Neill has found a place where he's most content.




It just happens to be in his own backyard.




After stints at Oregon State University, College of the Siskiyous in Weed, Calif., and Abilene Christian in Abilene, Texas, O'Neill returned to the Rogue Valley this season to kick for the Southern Oregon University football team.




"It's funny, because at first, staying around home is not something you really want to do," says O'Neill, a junior who will be on the field when the Raiders host Linfield Saturday. "But I've really had a good experience here in Ashland. The guys have been great, the coaching staff has been great. I feel like they have things going in the right direction."




O'Neill has been a vital weapon for the SOU offense, connecting on 8 of 13 field goals &

three of those misses came from more than 40 yards &

and making all but one of his 10 point-after attempts heading into Saturday's home contest against Linfield.




"You want to have a kicker that makes you forget about the kicking game," says second-year Raiders' coach Steve Helminiak with a laugh. "We have that in Corey. The expectations are that he will make the kick we send him out there for."




O'Neill had to shelve his baseball aspirations after arm surgery last spring.




"I was going to have to redshirt in Texas," O'Neill says, "so I said that's it.




"I do miss baseball a lot &

it's one of my favorite sports. But I'm having fun with football. Now I can focus on just one sport."




After a stellar prep career, in which he nailed 17 of 22 field goals for the Panthers in three years and was named all-state in soccer and baseball, O'Neill walked on to the Oregon State football program.




There, however, he was stuck behind All-American kicker Alexis Serna.




At College of the Siskiyous in Weed, Calif., O'Neill earned all-conference honors as a kicker and led the baseball team with a conference honors as a kicker and led the baseball team with a .444 batting average.




He would focus on baseball while in Texas last season, but the arm injury put a damper on his time with the Wildcats.




"I was just moving around a lot because I wanted to play two sports," O'Neill says. "My confidence (in kicking) never went away. And the coaches (at SOU) had confidence in me.




"So far, this has been the best experience. I never would have thought that coming out of high school."




The Raiders (3-2) will need O'Neill and everything else to be clicking in the 44th all-time meeting with Linfield. Kickoff is at 6 p.m. at Raider Stadium.




The Raiders return home after notching three wins in four consecutive games on the road. It is also only the second of three home games this season for SOU.




The Wildcats (2-2), a Division III school, own a 34-9 advantage in the all-time series and are seeking their 52nd consecutive winning season.




Last year, SOU dropped a 37-29 decision to Linfield en route to a 2-7 record.




"Linfield is obviously a very storied program," says Helminiak. "We understand what kind of program they are and we will prepare the best we can for them."




The 20th-ranked Wildcats are led by senior quarterback Trevor Scharer, who has completed 100 of 157 passes for 1,374 yards and 13 TDs.




Scharer, under the tutelage of Linfield offensive coordinator and former Ashland High coaching legend Jim Nagel, passed for a career-best 443 yards a year ago against the Raiders.




"Their quarterback is probably their best player," says Helminiak. "He's probably the best quarterback we'll see this year.




"Nagel does a great job with their schemes. I think any time you face an offense like that, you want to make it one dimensional."




Speedy wide receiver turned running back Travis Masters, who rushed for 149 yards on 25 carries a week ago, should be another weapon the Wildcats turn to.




For SOU, sophomore signal-caller Bryan Lee-Lauduski (1,180 yards and 11 TDs) has teamed with receivers Kevin Holtzman (26 catches, 396 yards) and Tim Greenidge (26 for 279) to form a potent passing attack. Running back Marlon Rosales has gained 237 yards on 72 carries to lead the ground game.




"It's going to be a fun game against two pretty good teams this year," says O'Neill. "I just know it'll be a hard-fought battle."




Reach reporter at 776-4483, or e-mail kgoff@mailtribune.com