Blast off! Just like that, Houston, the Ducks have landed in Columbus, Ohio to begin the 2012 volleyball season. Hopefully the Ducks enjoy the Ohio countryside. They’re going to be spending a surprising amount of time in the state, facing a stunningly difficult schedule.
Oregon trots out one of their most talented teams ever, and their reward in the first two weeks of the new season is top-notch competition against some of the nation’s best.
The Ducks began their rough road ahead by facing the hometown 24th ranked Buckeyes in Columbus and following that performance, will travel the hour and a half bus trip to Athens, OH to face the 13th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats next week.
On top of that, they have to play their first three matches in a span of 26 hours–tough treatment for the 20th-ranked Ducks. The team is coming off its fifth NCAA tournament trip in the past six years, its sixth straight +19-win season, and its third, upper division league finish under head coach Jim Moore.
Hopefully Oregon took their most prized possessions with them to Columbus and Athens, because they won’t see the intricate designs of Kilkenny Floor for the next two weeks (August 24-September 2). It’s a good thing the team enjoys playing well on the road. In 2011, the UO volleyball team played a total of 16 road games, of those Oregon lost only five games outside of Matt Knight Arena. In fact, since 2005, the Ducks have a record of 33-0 in non-conference games while at home. Last season they continued this great road play in grand fashion, knocking off the #1 Penn State Nittany Lions, the loss ending PSU’s home win streak that was the third longest in NCAA history–in any sport.
Oregon was one of six Pac-12 teams spotted in the top 20, with No. 1 UCLA, No. 3 Stanford, No. 6 USC, No. 13 Washington and No. 17 California. Other teams in the top five included No. 2 Texas, No. 4 Penn State and No. 5 Nebraska.
UO was picked a best-ever fourth two weeks ago in the Pac-12 Coaches Preseason Poll behind UCLA (first), Stanford (second) and USC (third), and ahead of Washington (fifth), California (sixth) and Arizona (seventh).
The Ducks welcome back most of their 2011 team, including leaders Alaina Bergsma and Lauren Plum. In addition, Oregon also welcomes to their ranks the nation’s #14-ranked freshman class according to PrepVolleyball.com.
So on paper, this team looks more auspicious than suspicious. These Duckies are good.
First up were the Toledo Rockets.
The Rockets were tabbed to finish fifth in the Conference USA preseason poll after they went 10-18 last year, finishing fifth in the C-USA West Division (6-10). The team welcomed back five starters and 10 letter-winners from last year.
In Friday night’s game against the Toledo Rockets, Coach Jim Moore let everyone in on a little secret: He is also capable of throwing in a curveball of Chip Kelly proportions. He consistently used a complete, brand new lineup in all three sets of the match. Smart move by Moore. Having three different lineups allowed Oregon to have fresh and hungry players in every game at all times. The Ducks swept the match three games to none, starting off the season right with a clean sweep victory.
When I spoke with coach Moore earlier in the season, one thing he said that needed to be better in order for the team to succeed, was the Ducks hitting efficiency. Have no fear, it appears the team listened. The offense finished with an impressive .364 hitting percentage, limiting the Rockets to a .058 hitting percentage.
Oregon’s freshman class proved that, while they may be young and inexperienced on the collegiate level, they’re ready to step-up and meet expectations. Middle blocker Clelia DeFelice (kill, ace, 1 block) and defensive specialist Tatum Norton (2 digs) each earned starts. Two other key offensive contributors were outside hitter Maddie Magee (6 kills, .857) and middle blocker Canace Finley (4 kills).
Friday’s 3-0 sweep marked the sixth opening-match sweep in Moore’s tenure as coach. Other clean sheets came over Gonzaga (2005), UC Irvine (2006), Idaho State (2007), San Francisco (2009) and Santa Clara (2010).
The Ducks (#20) proved season opening jitters are for the weak. Senior leaders Katherine Fischer landed a team-high 12 kills for the match–hitting .348–and Alaina Bergsma added eight kills in her two sets of play, topping the squad in hitting (.467) and aces (2).
The Houston Cougars return eight players from last year’s squad that went 19-11 and 12-8 in Conference USA. Houston has been rebuilding under new head coach Kaddie Platt, serving the prior 17 seasons as the head coach at Houston Baptist (499-157), leading the team to eight league championships, five regional titles and six NAIA national tournament trips (including a runner-up honor in ’02 when she was tabbed the NAIA Coach of the Year).
Up until Saturday, the Cougars and Ducks had never competed in a match. For the second straight match, Oregon’s hitting efficiency was at .300, with once again in their second contest of the 2012 season UO holding their opponent to a subpar, .150 hitting percentage.
To hold a squad to low hitting accuracy like that, a team needs good kills, something the Ducks have excelled at so far. Against the Cougars, junior middle blocker Ariana Williams and sophomore outside hitter Liz Brenner both hit .500 and ended with 10 and nine kills respectively.
Williams added an ace and two block-assists to pace the team in the latter category.
Against Houston, coach Jim Moore made one of his coaching philosophies very clear: If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. For the second match in a row, Moore constantly was rotating players in and out (a fairly unconventional practice in volleyball), but the strategy worked through two games, resulting in two victories.
Senior Katherine Fischer has been a machine for UO through the first two 2012 matchups. Against the Cougars, Fischer landed three aces among her 17 attempts and posted eight kills, a .429 hitting mark, to go along with a team-high 11 digs.
The Ducks had little time to celebrate, because on deck was the juggernaut, hometown No. 24 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, whom Oregon would face a few hours later.
No matter the sport, it’s no secret that Oregon and Ohio State have had their battles and have the scars and highlight reels to prove it. While the Ducks (#20) are ranked four spots ahead of the Buckeyes (#24) in the polls, when teams are that close, stats are meaningless and the match was guaranteed to be a close one, and it was.
The Buckeyes were tabbed sixth in the Big Ten Preseason poll, returning five starters from last year’s squad that advanced to the NCAA Regional semifinal, finishing with a 21-15 record in 2011. Senior outside hitters Emily Danks and Mari Hole were returning All-America honorable mentions. Fourth-year head coach Geoff Carlston (61-42) also guided the Buckeyes to the NCAA tourney in 2010, losing in the second round at home to eventual NCAA runner-up California. Ohio State got to play this tournament on their home floor, where they won 8 of their 13 home games last year.
For the first time in a long time, the Ducks showed some never-before-seen emotion Saturday night against the No. 24 OSU Buckeyes, the team appearing nervous and tentative early on. Ohio State took advantage, winning the first two sets 25-17 and 25-21. After a coach Moore pep talk during a technical timeout, the nerves seemed to disappear and Oregon roared back to win back-to-back sets 25-14 and 26-24.
The Duck offense receded back into old habits of last season, suffering a .129 and .194 hitting percentage in the first two sets, but then they exploded for .500, .317 and .333 marks in the third, fourth and fifth sets.
In the fifth and final set, UO jumped out to a 10-4 lead on single kills by Alaina Bergsma and Katherine Fischer and a pair by Ariana Williams, to go along with an ace by Haley Jacob, block by Fischer and freshman Maddie Magee. The rest of the set, the two teams sided out, except for a pair of two-point trade-offs late, before Fischer ended the contest with a kill in the 15-10 finale.
The Ducks last started 3-0 in 2010, and now start their 2012 campaign at the same mark. Coach Moore told me in July that if this team was going to be successful, the outside hitting has to improve, and if it did, they could be “really good.” In each of the first three games of the season, Oregon’s hitting percentage was well above .300, just like in baseball hitting .300 is a tremendous accomplishment.
Chip Kelly is known for experimenting with new tricks with an already explosive offense. Jim Moore too is experimenting with his top-notch offense. Perhaps that is now the program-wide identity, a school’s athletic program unafraid to think outside the box in every sport.
Moore has spent all three games mass-substituting his players, often–A move rarely seen in volleyball, but after three games and three wins, it’s worked.
Ask, and you shall receive. The Ducks asked for tough competition, they received, they overcame. They haven’t lost yet. If Oregon keeps up the .300+ hitting percentage and stellar defense they had against Toledo, Houston and Ohio State, it might be a while before they experience defeat.