When Lynn Kennedy agreed to take over the rebuilding process for the Southern Oregon University women's basketball team in 2005, one player remained by the coach's side every step of the way.




That player is current 5-foot-8 senior guard Chelsey Muri, who came to Ashland with Kennedy from New Mexico Highlands University after her freshman season.




The two have been instrumental in the turnaround of a Raiders program that was coming off a four-win season when they arrived two seasons ago.




Now, in Muri's final season, SOU is 15-3 and off to its best start since 1998-99 &

when the team reached the NAIA Division II Final Four.




And like she was when she first arrived at SOU, Muri has been at the heart of the Raiders' resurgence this season. Muri, the lone senior on the squad and nicknamed "Grandma" for her love of crocheting, averages a team-high 14.3 points per game and 3.4 assists per game.




"She's got a versatile game and she's definitely one of the better players in our league," says Kennedy, who has raised his win total every season at SOU since taking over for Kevin Wilson.




Kennedy, while at NMHU, signed Muri &

formerly Zimmerman before she married last July &

out of Monroe High School in Washington. Muri and Kennedy won a conference championship in 2004-05 at NMHU, but Muri quickly jumped on board upon hearing Kennedy was headed to SOU.




"When I took the job, she was able to move closer to home and it was an opportunity to come in and build a program around her," says Kennedy. "We started fitting the pieces in. It just seemed like the perfect fit. We needed a point guard that year."




Build around Muri is exactly what Kennedy has done. He has infused the Raiders' lineup with some of the conference's best young talent, led by 2007 Cascade Conference freshman of the year Jacki Speer. SOU had three players receive mention in freshman-of-the-year voting last season, including runner-up Whitney Scott and Crater graduate Emily Brookins, who finished fourth in the voting.




The Raiders have another talented freshman class this season.




"It's been a rebuilding process, but it's exciting to see that it's going so well," says Muri, a two-time all-conference performer as well as an NAIA academic scholar athlete and ESPN academic all-district team member. "I'm so glad to see the program turn around. SOU basketball is remaking a name for itself on the women's side."




Along with the best start for the program in seven years, the Raiders are averaging 82.6 points per game, seventh best in the country, and at one point boasted a nine-game winning streak that included a 95-92 win at Menlo College, a preseason top-10 team.




During that stretch, Muri was named Cascade Conference player of the week. Muri scored in double figures in all but two of the wins in the streak. She had a career-high 32 points against the College of Idaho in a 78-73 win on Dec. — and 29 points in an 84-77 win against Evergreen State on Dec. 18. The Raiders have won 12 of 13 entering tonight's home game against Warner Pacific.




"We didn't think we were going to have any losses right now," says Speer, a 6-1 forward from Centralia, Wash. "We just had the attitude we know where we want to go and what we want to do and this is how we are going to get there. You'll see us in the tournament in March."




The chemistry developed between Muri and Speer has been a key to the Raiders' surge this season. Speer is averaging 13.9 points and 8.5 rebounds after spending the summer in Ashland working with Kennedy.




"I was in the gym a lot, and I wanted to work out as much as I could," says Speer. "He kind of prepared me for what I should expect (playing with Muri) and what I need to do.




"She (Muri) brings everyone up to the next level. We're going to have some big shoes to fill. She's a huge part of the team."




For Kennedy, Muri's been a huge part of the team from Day 1.




"With her being at Highlands and seeing how we did down there and coming here, changing philosophy and style of play, she knew it was going to work," says Kennedy. "It definitely helped coming here and having a player like that."




Says Muri: "I'm just so glad I had the opportunity to come to SOU. We knew we had potential coming in, but we're still very young. To fulfill those expectations ... that's obviously fortunate for me to be around and see that."




While Muri considers herself fortunate to be at SOU, Kennedy is thankful to have a player he firmly considered an NCAA Division I prospect. But a vertebra stress fracture in Muri's back during her junior season at Monroe and playing in the shadow of 6-6 post Kirsten Thompson, now at Arizona State, kept Muri off most programs' radars.




"We were lucky to get her down there," says Kennedy. "I was really nervous in the recruiting process because I thought she was going to be recruited by other programs.




"When we played (Washington State) this season and last, the comment that was made was that, 'She breaks us down better than any Pac-10 guard.' Two Pac-10 coaches said that. I think that says a lot about the skills she has."




Reach sports reporter at 776-4469, or e-mail landrews@mailtribune.com