Southern Oregon University volleyball coach Josh Rohfling gets excited when he talks about what he says is one of the Raiders’ team strengths, its uncanny ability to turn a hard spike from an opponent into a picture-perfect pass.

But SOU sophomore setter Lauren McGowne, the Raider most likely to be on the receiving end of most of those nice passes, can’t discuss the subject without delving into a little hyperbole.

“They pass balls that I don’t even think are passable,” she said. “They just make miracles happen.”

McGowne and company hope all those miracles can be turned into some quick-strike offense and, eventually, some key wins as SOU opens its 2014 campaign at the prestigious Biola Invitational beginning Thursday in La Mirada, Calif. The Raiders, who were unranked in the NAIA preseason coaches’ poll, face California State-San Marcos and Westmont College (Calif.) on Thursday and No. 22 Vanguard (Calif.) and No. 2 Concordia (Calif.) on Friday.

“We’re focused on San Marcos,” Rohlfing said. “We’re excited about that match, and after that we’ll see where we’re at.”

Three weeks after the Raiders began preparing for the season Rohlfing is confident that the team will have at least two clear strengths — ball-handling and the middle blocker position, which is anchored by starters Nikki Keller and Emma Gasman. Keller, a 5-foot-11 senior, ranked first in the Cascade Conference in attack percentage (.384) and 12th in blocks per set (.84) last season, while Gasman, a 6-0 sophomore, ranked third in hitting percentage (.332) and ninth in blocks per set (.88).

Also in the middle, Abbie Hanser, a 6-1 redshirt sophomore, and Sam Boehnke, a 6-0 senior, are expected to make regular contributions, giving the Raiders both depth and explosiveness on the front line.

“We have two of the stronger middles around and I’m excited to see what they do in a match,” said Rohlfing, who’s entering his eighth season at the helm. “I really believe they could be fantastic; they could be all-world. They are pretty dominant.”

SOU won’t be nearly as physically imposing on the outside, where hitters Paulla Pinheiro and Motade Atanda step into starting roles. But what they lack in size, Pinheiro and Atanda make up for in sheer athleticism. Pinheiro, a 5-9 senior from Brazil, is one of the Raiders’ two returning all conference players — McGowne is the other — after ranking ninth on the CCC in both kills per set (2.91) and hitting percentage (.261). Atanda, a 5-8 senior, saw only limited action last season but with her outstanding leaping ability and quickness she’s expected to add another dimension to the Raider offense.

Pinheiro and Atanda also happen to be stellar passers, which should make the Raiders a tougher team to defend. But, Rohlfing added, nobody will know how SOU handles its lack of height on the outside until it’s forced to for the first time against live competition Thursday.

“We’re pretty small on the outside, so how are we going to deal with that?” He said. “They jump well, but you just never know until you play someone who’s 6-4 and 6-4.”

McGowne returns as SOU’s starting setter and stepping in as the starting libero is Brookelynn Cole, who replaces CCC libero of the year Renee Yomtob.

Cole has big shoes to fill, but Rohlfing is excited about the possibilities. 

"What (Cole) gives us is that tenacity," Rohlfing said, "a fire that is unreal."

On the right side, Boehnke, an Ashland High alum, and 6-0 junior Tyana Andrews are still battling for a spot in the starting lineup. Rohlfing says his decision will come down to the last practice before Thursday’s season-opener, but he feels comfortable with both.

While the Raiders are loaded in the quickness department, Rohlfing says it’s their communication that could set the 2014 Raiders apart from past versions. The starting lineup is similar to the one SOU used to begin the 2013 campaign, when it finished third in league play and fell in the CCC semifinals, but this year’s Raiders are more seasoned, more mature.

“The volleyball IQ over the year has been a big focus for us, trying to understand what it is we’re trying to do, what our purpose is on the court,” he said. “I feel like we’ve made that big step and now it’s about what’s it going to look like when we play someone else. You always look good against yourself when you’re beating yourself up every other day. So now, what is it that other teams are going to pressure us into that we’re going to struggle with. Going into it, I like the things that we’re doing well that we weren't at this time last year. I just don’t know what it is yet that we need to work on.”

Keller says SOU will impose its game upon opponents instead of the other way around.

“I think that our strength is going to be how we’re consistently aggressive,” she said. “We are definitely an attacking team and our defense is unbelievable. So we’re going to go in playing as hard as we can against the best opponents and see how it goes. It’s about who’s fighting harder.”

The Raiders play eight nonconference matches before hosting their CCC opener Sept. 4 against Corban University. SOU hosts 23rd-ranked Easter Oregon, rated No. 2 in the league’s preseason poll, on Sept. 26, and 18th-ranked and league favorite College of Idaho the following night.

The Raiders have not formulated any season goals for 2014. For now, they say, their top priority is to play well against Cal State-San Marcos. For McGowne, who was voted CCC freshman of the year in 2013, that means communication is key. After that, she says, everything will fall into place.

“My expectation is that we find a rhythm,” she said. “Last year I think, we were so new to each other that it was really hard to find our groove. And this year, I just want us to find our rhythm and go out and attack. And I think that we have that capability. I want to win, but I want us to find our rhythm to win.”