The Southern Oregon University volleyball team will open Cascade Conference play in Portland this weekend with high expectations, and a few question marks as well.
When the Raiders take the court Friday night against Warner Pacific, they will do so as the preseason favorites to win the conference. They return 10 players who suited up last year; and, most importantly, welcome back senior captain and two-time All American Lindsey Stone from a medical redshirt last season.
However, the team has had problems against talented opponents early this year. At the Paul Elliott Invitational, SOU went 2-2, struggling to finish points against top-ranked Fresno Pacific (Calif.) and a very talented Embry Riddle (Fla.) squad.
In the face of conference play, fourth-year head coach Josh Rohlfing must figure out how to tap his team's offensive potential.
"I think (our expectation) is working hard every day, every week," says Rohlfing. "I think we have the capability to be very good "… it's hard to project."
If the Raiders do work hard every day, things could work out pretty well. Rohlfing has his sights on winning the Cascade Conference tournament, which would earn an automatic qualifying berth into the NAIA National Championships.
First though, the team must figure out how to finish points.
"Our ability to terminate points on first and second swings isn't up to the capability we want," Rohlfing said.
To fix this problem, Rohlfing will rely heavily on a core group of leaders and rotation of fresh, young players with varying capabilities. The return of Stone, a two-time Cascade Conference player of the year, is the biggest boost to the team.
"(Having Stone back) is awesome," senior outside hitter Leanne Stennett said. "She exudes confidence "… it will definitely bring our level of play back up."
A 5-foot-9 senior, Stone is arguably the best player in the conference. As a former high school player of the year, Stone flourished under Rohlfing in high school. Playing for him for 10 years allows her to act as the coach on the floor.
"I don't even have to call my signals in," says Rohlfing. "She understands what I'm saying "… she is a really positive influence over this team."
Stone plays setter, the position most responsible for setting up offensive sets and recognizing defensive formations. In that role, Rohlfing says, Stone plays his alter-ego and head coach on the floor.
"(Setters) are the voice of the coach in situations," Stone said. "With Josh I feel like we are usually thinking the same thing "… I'm like a little minion."
Rohlfing will also rely on the 5-11 Leanne Stennett and junior Sarah Holgen to be early-season leaders while some of the rotation questions are answered. The team, according to Rohlfing, is long on experience in the starting lineup, but lacks the same "knowledge base" in its rotational depth.
"I feel like I can give the younger girls a good idea of what coach wants," said Holgen, who also played under Rohlfing at Ashland High.
Holgen's experience in the system will be relied upon heavily while younger players figure things out.
If the younger players can fill middle positions for this team, a ferocious offensive identity could be born.
"It's hard to tell what this weekend will bring," Rohlfing admits.
There are still questions to be answered. Most importantly, who will step up and fill in holes in the Raider rotation.
"This weekend will be feeling out what this team is all about," Rohlfing said. "What I'm looking for is to see how our middles will compete."
To that end, redshirt freshmen Haley Fikso or junior Lauren Swetland will play key roles as SOU's rotation continues to evolve.
"We're really excited about our conference this year," Stennett said. "Our goal is to win the conference and go to nationals. We want to stir it up a little bit at nationals "… and we want to show that Oregon has a lot of potential and skill."