The University of Northern Colorado’s volleyball team was recently crowned champion of the Big Sky Conference, but last night at Matthew Knight Arena they were little more than a speed bump as the 5th-seed Ducks cruised to a 3-0 victory in the first round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. Aside from being their 19th sweep of the season, the game also marked the first time that Oregon has enjoyed home court advantage in the postseason in nearly three decades.
More impressively, they were able to pull off the win with almost no foreknowledge of their opponent.
“We only had one game on them, so we had the last match they played against Idaho State,” explained Ducks outside hitter and Pac-12 player of the year Alaina Bergsma in a press conference following the game. “Only watching one match, you try to pick up tendencies, but you don’t find out a whole ton.”
The Ducks have led the nation this season in kills per set and assists per set, but they’ve also had a bad habit of getting off to sluggish starts in their games. This time around, however, they were able to play at full speed without their customary warm-up period.
But while their initial burst of quickness in the first set helped Oregon build a quick lead, the team also played sloppily in the early going. The Bears were able to tie the score at 10-10 and again at 11-11, but six of those first 11 points were gifted to them by Ducks errors. After that, the home team cleaned up its technique and scored nine straight points en route to a 25-14 finish, including three aces by Kellie Kawasaki, who also played superbly on defense throughout the evening as a sub for starting libero Haley Jacob.
“Kellie came in and had that run… we went from 11-11 to 25-14, and Kel sparked that,” said Oregon head coach Jim Moore. “For me, it’s pretty special that Kel has accepted that role and taken that role on. She could be the starting libero for a whole lot of teams in this country, and she comes in and serves and scores a lot of points.”
In the second set, the Ducks rapidly built up a strong lead, 16-9. The team’s offensive efforts in the first set were dominated largely by Bergsma and outside hitter Liz Brenner, but this time around scoring was much more of a group effort, with Bergsma, Brenner, middle blockers Ariana Williams and Canace Finley all contributing multiple kills.
Midway through the set, the Bears’ put together their first sustained scoring effort of the game, thanks in no small part to their star hitter Kelly Arnold, who ended the night as the team leader in kills (11) and total points (12). But despite Arnold’s productivity, Northern Colorado was only able to narrow the scoring gap to 20-18 before Oregon pulled away for good and took the set, 25-19.
“We knew that they were going to rely on number seventeen, Kelly Arnold,” said Bergsma. “She did a pretty good job, but I think we slowed her down and that really helped us.”
The Bears enjoyed their only lead of the night at the beginning of set three. Granted, they only led because they scored the first point of the set thanks to a service error by Oregon setter Lauren Plum, and the lead only lasted for one volley before the Ducks rapidly built a 12-6, but a lead is a lead. A lapse in concentration by the Ducks’ hitters led to a string of attack errors that whittled the scoring gap down to 13-11 and nearly allowed Northern Colorado back into the game, but the Bears proved unable to capitalize on the opportunity. Not long thereafter, the Ducks regained their focus and overpowered their way to a 25-18 finish, with the deciding point being scored off an ace by libero Haley Jacob.
Afterwards, Moore was all too happy to take the win, but nevertheless expressed some concern with his players’ occasionally uneven performance throughout. “I think we can play at a higher level,” he began. “It may be nitpicking, but I’m not interested in [just] winning the first round. I don’t mean to sound arrogant or cocky or anything, but I think they’re really good and I think we need to play that way every single second.”
Later today, Moore’s players will get an opportunity to meet his expectations when they square off for an NCAA second round match up against the University of Dayton, who earlier in the evening mounted a come-from-behind victory over the Pepperdine Waves, 3-2. The game will begin at 8:00 at Matthew Knight Arena.