Twenty-two games into the 2007-08 season the Southern Oregon University women's basketball team has all but shed its short-lived identity as "lovable underdog" for a new and improved label: Legitimate, serious and downright dangerous contender.




For the first time in years the eyes of the Cascade Collegiate Conference will be fixed on Ashland this weekend, when the Raiders will get their shot at yanking at least partial control of the league title chase away from fellow contenders The College of Idaho (Friday) and Eastern Oregon (Saturday).




Southern Oregon (19-3, 10-2 CCC) enters the home stand tied with The College of Idaho (13-6, 10-2) for second place in the conference standings, one game behind 17th-ranked and league-leading Eastern Oregon (17-2, 11-1). That means that the Raiders, who enter Friday's game on a league-best seven-game winning streak, can tie Eastern Oregon atop the conference standings with a weekend sweep.




It won't be easy, but then again nobody expected the Raiders to be this close to the top this late in the season anyway. Southern was picked a distant third behind the Mountaineers and Coyotes in the preseason coaches poll, but with eight games left in the regular season the youthful but confident Raiders are in position to make those predictions look foolish.




"I think if you look at the entire program, it's really exciting to see how far the program has come," SOU head coach Lynn Kennedy said after this morning's practice, "but for this team this year, it's still one game at a time. It really doesn't matter that it's this kind of game with so much at stake. We just have to go out and play our game."




The College of Idaho enters McNeal Pavilion on a four-game winning streak, during which the Coyotes have outscored their opponents by an average score of 73-53. The 'Yotes rely on a quick-hitting defense that leads the conference in steals (15.84 per game) and a high-powered offense that includes two of the league's top five scorers in Denise Hill (16.7 ppg) and Whitney Clark (16.5 ppg).




Southern can counter with outstanding balance &

nine Raiders play at least 15 minutes per game on average &

as well as one of the best inside-outside combinations in the conference in guard Chelsey Muri and post Jackie Speer. Muri, one of just two seniors on SOU's roster, ranks 10th in the conference in scoring (13.9) eighth in assists (3.45 apg) and second in steals (2.23 spg); Speer ranks third in the conference in rebounding (8.5 rpg) and 10th in blocked shots (0.86 bpg).




"They have really good shooters and they have a really good halfcourt trap," Kennedy said of C of I. "It's a little different style, but we both like to score a lot of points and we both like to get up and down the floor, so it should be a good game for the fans to watch."




The 'Yotes may have revenge on their minds since SOU, paced by Muri's game-high 32 points, won the first meeting between the two teams, 78-73, back on Dec. 1, in Caldwell, Idaho. That victory was especially sweet for the Raiders since it came 24 hours after they lost in overtime to Eastern Oregon.




The College of Idaho also features two of the league's top three 3-point shooters &

Kayla Brewer, ranked No. 1, is 28-for-63 (44 percent) from outside the arc, and ShaNae Horner is 21-for-50 (42 percent). SOU can shoot, too &

Rhiannon Dickison, Whitney Scott and Muri rank second, fourth and sixth, respectively, in the league's list of top long-distance threats.




The Mountaineers, who moved up two spots in the most recent NAIA Division II top-25 poll, are well rounded and experienced. They have the league's No. 2-ranked defense, No. 3-ranked offense, are the league's most accurate shooting team at 47.5 percent and rank No. 2 in rebounding and No. — in rebounding margin.




Eastern's top scorers are Sheena Henderson (14.5 ppg) and Tiffanie Ulmer (14.3 ppg), who rank seventh and eight in the conference, respectively, but it was Breana Olson who torched SOU in the last meeting between the sister schools. Against the Raiders, Olson drilled 9 of 20 shots, including 4 of 6 treys, on her way to 27 points, seven rebounds and three steals.




"They like the halfcourt game and they really want to play really intense halfcourt defense," Kennedy said of Eastern. "They have got some really good post players and they've had some shooters step up every game. The key against Eastern is really setting the tempo. We want an uptempo style."




Based on this morning's practice, Kennedy doesn't expect his team to be swallowed up by any big-game jitters.




"They're treating it as another game," he said, "and that's kind of what you have to do when you get to this point."




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