At this time last year, first-year coach Brent Ericksen was delaying his Raider cross country team's debut by a couple weeks.

At this time last year, first-year coach Brent Ericksen was delaying his Raider cross country team's debut by a couple weeks.

He says they needed time, and while Southern Oregon was dropping to fourth-place in the Cascade Conference, they were really just beginning what would be the best run in school history.

A year later, the Raider men's team has a top 10 national ranking, and without further delay, will set out to defend their Cascade Conference championship and improve on a fourth-place finish at the NAIA national meet that no one saw coming when Ericksen stepped on campus.

"It was such a scramble in many respects," Ericksen said, citing scheduling, transportation, and mostly — just filling out a competitive team. "The easiest day in my office last year was about 11 hours, but there was a lot of work to do."

Southern Oregon now looks to benefit from that work, which included doubling the size of the men's roster to 24 and taking a women's team, which Ericksen said really only had two runners at the start of 2008, and turning it into a 12-person squad.

"It felt like a start-up program last year," Ericksen said. "We're so far ahead of where we were, and it's a credit to what the kids have done."

Thanks to a summer spent training in Ashland by a chunk of the team, the Raiders are expected not to miss a beat when they open up at Humboldt State this weekend even after losing their top-three men's runners.

David Laney, a junior, has made the biggest leap as Southern Oregon's No. 1 runner. The Portland-native finished fourth among Raiders at the National meet last year, but then ran the 10k at a CCC-record pace in the conference championships.

Ericksen said Laney will likely leave his mark of 25:42 at the National meet in the dust this Fall.

"He could run at 99 percent of the Division I schools in the country; he's just that good," he said. "His improvement and work ethic have just been incredible over the past year, and he's put himself in position to make the next step.

Along with Laney, junior Ryan Ghelfi is the No. 2 returner with an 80th-place national finish under his belt.

The depth of the team, though, is why Ericksen has no worries the Raiders won't live up to their billing.

To go with a crop of other returners, Southern Oregon added Crater standout Zach Elliot, who had originally intended to compete at Boise State this year. Elliot was a district champion last year and placed second at state, and could fit in anywhere in the one-through-five slots for SOU.

"He's extremely talented, obviously, and he's just going to get better," Ericksen said. "We're going to ride him as far as we can take him."

Dennis McCaffrey, an Ashland High product, could also crack the top-seven in his first year after joining the Raiders last spring. Ericksen says he will probably be rotating at least 12 guys in the top group, though.

The Raider women were picked to finish seventh in the conference, but Ericksen has likened them to last year's men's team.

"Nobody saw us coming last year, and I think this year the women are in the same situation," he said. "People are going to see a different team this year, and I don't see us finishing that low at all."

Ericksen emphasized recruiting locally for the women's side upon his arrival, and the addition of some local athletes is expected to give the Raiders a boost in 2009.

"We went to a ton of local meets last year because one of the thing I heard when I got here was that we needed to do a better job of getting girls from the area," Ericksen said, "and I think we were lucky to get some of the talent we did."

Laurie Stoutenburg, a redshirt at the University of Oregon in 2008, has joined SOU after a prep career at Crater. The freshman placed eighth at the Oregon 5A championships two years ago.

Seena Franz, a state-qualifier at Ashland last year, was also a top-addition.

The opener for the men and women, at the Humboldt State Invitation on Saturday, comes less than two months before the Raiders will defend their title at the CCC championships.

"We're going to have to make the adjustment to being kind of the hunted this year," Ericksen added, "but that's the fun part."