The Best Kept Secret in Eugene
Matthew Heuett, EDN Sports
They wear the colors of the Oregon Ducks. They’re nationally ranked. They play in one of the toughest leagues in the world.
And chances are you’ve never seen them play a single game, or point.
While teams competing in higher profile sports like Chip Kelly’s football squad and Vin Lananna’s cross country teams bask in the spotlight each fall, Jim Moore has been quietly building Oregon’s women’s volleyball team into a national powerhouse to the tune of six straight winning seasons and five trips to the NCAA’s postseason tournament.
That record is even more remarkable when you consider just how bad the program had become before Moore’s arrival. From 1991 to 2004, the team suffered through fourteen straight losing seasons, had a cumulative record of just 118-287, burned through three head coaches, and was pretty much the laughingstock of the Pac-12.
Resurrecting long-dead volleyball programs is not new territory for Coach Moore. Of his six head coaching jobs, four had losing records when he took them over — Chico State (’01-’02) in particular had lost a whopping 83% of its games in the five years prior to Moore’s tenure there — and he left each one with a winning overall record. So, what’s his secret?
“When I got here, I was asked a question [at my introductory press conference], what are the things I was going to do, and I said ‘recruit, recruit, recruit.’” Sitting in his spacious corner office at the Casanova Center, he smiles at the memory, something he does often during the interview.
A slim, fit man with sandy hair, Moore’s calm, pleasant demeanor makes you feel less like you’re conducting an interview with a championship-winning head coach (1993 NCAA Division II championship, 1997 Big-12 championship) and more like you’re having a chat with a neighborly acquaintance.
“I mean, we needed to get some players in here. We didn’t have the players that could compete against Stanford or USC or UCLA.”
In the Pac-12, that’s easier said than done.
“The one thing about volleyball in this conference is, this isn’t college volleyball. This is probably the fifth or sixth best league in the world . . . this is as high, as good as it gets at the collegiate level, especially top to bottom,” Moore explains. “You had to get players who were good enough to compete in this conference.”
He isn’t exaggerating. Last year, the top six teams in the Pac-12 were nationally ranked, and seven Pac-12 teams were in the NCAA tournament. Two of those, UCLA and USC, made it to the final four, and UCLA took home the championship. Since 1981, Pac-12 teams have won 14 of the 31 NCAA championships in women’s volleyball, they’ve finished in at least second place 24 times, and at least one Pac-12 team has been in the semifinals 28 times.
Even more impressively, in four of those tournaments the conference was represented by three teams in the final four, and in four other years the two finalists were both Pac-12 teams.
It’s precisely that level of competition (and the recruiting resources made available to him by the university) that’s kept Moore rooted in one place for so long. 2012 will be his eighth year as head coach in Eugene, making this his longest tenure at any one school by three years. “I’m not going anywhere. I didn’t really want to move around. When I left Texas . . . I just had realized it was a bad fit and I wanted to get back to a place like [Oregon].”
When asked to explain further, he hesitates briefly. “I don’t know how you explain a bad fit,” he says a moment later. “The University of Texas is very political. I loved Austin, it’s a neat place, but it’s very, I mean it’s a different place. The University of Texas is a different place, especially in that athletic department, and I just didn’t fit in.”
Texas would appear to be the lone blemish on Moore’s otherwise impressive resume, but he doesn’t see it that way. “I was actually the winningest coach after three years at Texas,” he explains.
“Not in terms of total number of wins, but percentage-wise. I almost took this [the University of Oregon head coaching] job then. It opened, and I looked at it, and I wanted to go. I hesitated a little bit and my son got sick, my youngest son got sick, and I didn’t take it, and I regretted it from the moment I said no. Then the next year [at Texas] we had all kinds of injuries and I became the bad guy.”
But however impressive the team’s head coach and win-loss record may be, there’s a broader question here that needs to be addressed, one that’s of great interest to prospective spectators: why volleyball?
“That’s a good question,” Moore responds. “In general, when people come [to watch a game for the first time] . . . they walk away from a volleyball match and go, ‘I had no concept that they were that athletic . . . Women are just as athletic [as men], they’re not necessarily as strong as men, and that’s what makes this sport in my opinion great because you don’t have to push somebody out of the way, you don’t have to do those things. It’s an incredibly difficult, skilled sport.”
For those of you unfamiliar with volleyball, it’s helpful to know that fielding an incoming ball typically happens in three steps.
First, someone has to prevent the ball from hitting the ground (and thus becoming a point for the other team) by getting under it and hitting it aloft with their outstretched forearms. Next, a setter redirects the ball toward one of the team’s hitters, and they in turn attempt to score a point for their side by hitting the ball over the net toward whatever patch of the opponent’s floor looks the most vulnerable. Score 25 points and you win a set; win three sets and you’ve won the game.
“People ask all the time, when does the setter make the decision [about where to direct the ball], and it’s literally, they make their decision where to set when the ball is a foot and a half from their hands,” Moore says.
“They’re looking at everything and have to make that absolute split-second decision — not based on a read, not based on other things.” Moore pauses again to choose his words.
“Football quarterbacks can stand back, look at where people are, know that this person’s one-on-one, know that’s maybe where I go [with the pass] or that’s the most logical choice. [In volleyball,] it happens way too fast.”
“Tactically, it’s very similar to football . . . if you watch volleyball coaches draw plays, it ends up looking like football plays, and there’s a lot of misdirection and things like that [similar to what] happens in football. When people learn that, they love it and they can’t leave it,” he continues. “It’s incredibly fast.”
According to Moore, there’s only one place to sit if you want to watch a volleyball match properly. “If you watch coaches watch the game, they don’t watch at mid-court, they watch in the end zone . . . that way you can see the misdirection. If you sit at half-court, you can’t see the misdirection.”
“That’s what it’s all about,” Moore confirms. “You ask setters all the time, ‘what do you think the blocker’s thinking?’ Because the idea is to get one hitter on one blocker, and there’s three [blockers] up. That’s why you’ll attack from the back row often . . . so that you can attack in places that are weaknesses to the defense.”
The volleyball team plays its first game of the season in late August, and the first home game is scheduled for September 5th versus Santa Barbara.
But if that’s too long to wait to see them in action, you can catch them in a spring scrimmage game versus Oregon State on May 4th at the Matthew Knight Arena.
Six starters from last fall will be returning, including All-America and All-Pac-12 outside hitter Alaina Bergsma, All-Pac-12 (and All-America honorable mention) setter Lauren Plum, All-Pac-12 Freshman Team outside hitter Liz Brenner, outside hitter Katherine Fischer, libero Haley Jacob, defensive specialist Kellie Kawasaki, and middle blocker Ariana Williams.
With so much returning talent, the team will be looking to improve on last year’s 21-10 (14-8) record before making a strong bid for the NCAA championship.
But no matter what happens next season or in the years thereafter, Moore says he’s here in Eugene to stay. “I promised my kids when I came here [that] this was it, we’re not moving again.”
“If they run me off then I’m going to go bag groceries.”