Headed into the first weekend of November, the game on every Oregon volleyball fan’s mind was the rematch with No. 1 Stanford on Sunday, and with good reason. After all, the Cardinals were the team that ended the Ducks’ undefeated streak a month ago and caused them to lose their No. 2 national ranking.
Compared to that impending grudge match, the game against California scheduled for that Friday seemed almost beneath notice. The unranked Golden Bears, in the midst of an uneven 11-11 season, were surely going to be unable to put up much of a fight against a home team with a 20-1 record that had recently fought its way back into the #2 spot. In short, California was doomed to be the sideshow to Stanford’s center ring, the appetizer to Stanford’s main course.
However, it would seem that someone forgot to tell that to California’s players, who cheered jubilantly on the court after pulling off a huge underdog win while green and yellow-clad fans began to glumly file their way out of Matthew Knight Arena.
Afterwards, head coach Jim Moore seemed understandably reticent to talk at length about the loss. “Real disappointing,” he said after a long pause. “I don’t know what else to say other than real disappointing.”
Given his team’s lethargic performance, particularly early in the game, Moore’s frustration is easy to understand. In the first two sets, California was able to jump out to a quick lead before coasting to wins, 17-25 and 21-25, respectively. Even more frustratingly, the Ducks gift-wrapped over a third of their opponent’s points in both sets, giving up ten points off errors in the first set and twelve in the second. Meanwhile, Bears outside hitters Christina Higgins and Adrienne Gehan made life miserable for Oregon’s defenders by powering attacks past blockers almost at will.
“We just didn’t come out fully ready to go tonight,” offered outside hitter Liz Brenner. “Pretty much every aspect [of our play] was a little shaky. The first couple games, we weren’t connecting with Lauren [Plum] very well, and that’s hard to run an offense when your hitters and setters aren’t connecting.”
After halftime, the Ducks returned to the court with renewed purpose. In particular, the improved accuracy of Brenner and fellow outside hitter Alaina Bergsma provided a spark that resulted in back-to-back wins in the next two sets, 25-22 and 25-19. For their part, the Golden Bears refused to dial back on the pressure, forcing Oregon to earn every last point. The fourth set was particularly hard-fought, with possession of serve changing seventeen straight times to begin the set.
But even though Oregon was able to give the home crowd glimpses of its usual frenetic, score-inflating offensive pace through most of the penultimate set, by the midpoint of the fifth set they had returned to the mistake-prone play with which they’d dug themselves into a hole in the first place. A few errors later, the Bears clinched the fifth set 13-15, and the usually raucous Matthew Knight Arena crowd was rendered mute.
Still, as tough as this loss may have been, afterwards the Ducks were uniform in their insistence that they would put the defeat behind them in time to play Stanford.
“Nebraska we all know last week lost to [Ohio State] and turned around and beat Penn State,” said Bergsma, referring to the #4 Cornhuskers’ defeat of the then-#1 Nittany Lions after suffering a loss two days earlier to the 18-7 Buckeyes. “So I guess that’s our plan.”