Last week after the Ducks’ beat the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos, middle blocker Ariana Williams was asked if she had played St. Mary’s before.
“No, but I hear they don’t like us,” she said. “They don’t want to play us or something.”
That animosity was evident on the court last night, as the Gaels pushed Oregon’s volleyball team harder than most. The home team won in three sets to post their fifth sweep of the season, but as you might guess from the final scores of 27-25, 25-21, and 25-18, the match was anything but a lopsided blowout.
The first set started off normally enough for the Ducks as they jumped out to a 7-1 lead thanks to some nice offensive work by outside hitter Liz Brenner and a string of attack errors by the Gaels. However, that opening series of volleys was one of the few times all night that Oregon was able to dominate their opponent. Once St. Mary’s got their offensive game plan on track, they quickly closed the gap to 9-8, tied the game at 14-14, then took the lead at 16-17.
The Gaels were able to stay in front of the Ducks for most of the second half of the set as the two sides traded points in an intense series of volleys that had defensive players on both sides of the net scrambling to keep up. Finally, with St. Mary’s poised to score the game-winning point at 24-25, the Ducks were able to punch through three points in a row to secure a come-from-behind win, the first two off of a hit and a block by outside hitter Alaina Bergsma and the last off a block by outside hitter Liz Brenner.
“I want to give them credit, they took us out of rhythm for sure,” said head coach Jim Moore afterwards. “They went right at Kat [outside hitter Katherine Fischer] from the beginning. They got information they hadn’t had from watching video, that’s for sure. So that caught us a little off guard ’cause nobody has been serving at Katherine all year long… We didn’t serve well either, so we didn’t put any pressure on them. They were applying all the pressure and we were able to kind of squeak one out game one just because we were bigger, just more physical, and it’s good that you can do that, for sure, but we just didn’t have any rhythm.”
Gaels middle blocker Gabby Jolly and outside hitter Jordan Shaw made life particularly difficult for the Ducks in the first set. “We knew that three (Jolly) could beat us, or at least get high,” Moore explained, referring to Jolly by her jersey number. “We were gonna let her have it, we just weren’t going to let the outside [hitters] beat us. That wasn’t going to happen, and they were going to get the most balls and we didn’t let them do that, so I was pleased with that, and we knew three would put the ball on the floor doing that, but that’s okay, I was okay with that.”
Set two started off in the opposite direction, with St. Mary’s quickly building a 2-6 lead before Oregon closed the gap to 7-8. Both offenses were so evenly matched that at two different times in the set possession of the ball changed six times in a row. The Ducks finally tied the score at 18-18 before methodically building a lead en route to a 25-21 win.
If there was a turning point in this match, it happened toward the end of set two. With Oregon tenuously clinging to a 20-19 lead, the Gaels redoubled their offensive efforts and soon had the home team off-kilter and struggling to compete. It wasn’t long before an attack glanced off a dig by one of the Ducks at a bad angle, sailing it high into the air and out of bounds.
It was then, with the score on the verge of being tied and momentum threatening to swing back in their opponent’s favor, that Fischer stepped up in a big way. After being picked on by the Gaels’ servers most of the night, number twelve rushed out of bounds in hot pursuit, stretched over the media table set up on the sideline, and knocked the wayward ball back into play with a well-executed dig. The move caught St. Mary’s off guard, and for the rest of the set they ended up being the ones who couldn’t quite seem to keep up.
Brenner was a scoring machine throughout set two, with Fischer, Williams, and Bergsma contributing points as well. Even setter Lauren Plum, who normally spends all her time feeding the ball to other players, got in on the action by scoring a point on a block. For the Gaels, Jolly and Shaw were joined in their relentless assault by outside hitter Kristina Graven and middle blocker Katie Reininger, both of whom scored multiple points on blocks and attacks alike.
After a brief intermission in which two local Marine Corps veterans were honored for their military service as well as their work with the Wounded Warriors Project, set three got underway. The set began with four lead changes in the first eleven points, but then things really began to go the Ducks’ way. After dropping behind 6-5, St. Mary’s was able to tie the score twice, first at 8-8 and then 9-9, but that’s the closest they got to regaining the lead in the final set.
It’s difficult to point to any one thing that made the difference for Oregon. The volleys were every bit as intense as they were in the first two sets, and their opponent certainly never gave up or eased back on the pressure, but all the little things started to click. Attacks that had previously hit nothing but open court were landing on the arms of outstretched defenders instead, and their passes and attacks flew a little faster and with a little better accuracy.
Whatever the reason, this time around the Ducks were able to take everything that the Gaels could throw at them and return it with interest. St. Mary’s tried to rally late, but was ultimately unable to stop Oregon from rolling to a 25-18 win to end the game.
After the game, Bergsma offered an explanation for her team’s improved performance in the final set. “The third game we definitely made changes, we started serving tougher and put some pressure on them. Before in the first two sets our team was feeling a lot of pressure, and thankfully we were able to run our offense and score some points and transition.”
“They’re a good team,” she continued. “They have pretty good ball control, and we weren’t playing our offense that we wanted to, so I think that’s really what was struggling… once we figured that out and calmed down we were able to win easier.”
Next, the Ducks travel to Portland State on Wednesday, then return home to face Oregon State on the 19th. The Civil War matchup starts at 7:00 at Matthew Knight Arena and will also be broadcasted on the Pac-12 Network.