Believe it or not, football is not the only fall sport played at the University of Oregon. Like its gridiron counterpart, the Ducks’ volleyball team is a nationally ranked (20th) offensive powerhouse stacked with enough talent to make a serious championship run not just possible, but expected. But while Chip Kelly’s team has had their efforts rewarded with nationally televised games and sell-out crowds at Autzen, Jim Moore’s players have had to make do with half-capacity audiences at Matthew Knight Arena and media coverage that rates as cursory at best.
Spectators don’t tend to come out in droves for Oregon volleyball, at least not yet, but the ones who do are fiercely loyal supporters. In both preseason games this month, a team scrimmage held on the eleventh followed by an alumni game on the eighteenth, the concentric rings of dark gray seating inside the Arena were largely devoid of spectators, but the handful who were in attendance did their level best to simulate the noise of a much larger crowd.
Outside hitter Alaina Bergsma, an All-American and All-Pac-12 selection last season for the Ducks, expressed her appreciation for the fans’ cheering efforts after the first preseason game.
“It helps get their nerves out a little bit,” she said, referring to her teammates. “It really helps people understand [what to expect].” Bergsma’s comments aside, game day jitters didn’t seem to be much of a factor for the Ducks in their team scrimmage, which pitted a squad of Oregon players in green jerseys against a squad of teammates dressed in white.
However, the same could not be said for exhaustion. After a briskly played and largely error-free opening set, which the white squad won 26-28, the second set of the scrimmage proved to be a much sloppier affair. Muscles, enervated by the team’s grueling four-a-day practice schedule, began to refuse to cooperate, and digs and attacks that had previously been on-target began to fly astray.
Official stats were unavailable for the game, but an unofficial tally for set two shows both squads committing a combined five net errors, five attack errors, and six service errors before the green squad finally prevailed, 26-24.
Luckily for the players, an extended respite followed the second set while Coach Moore took questions from the audience. Throughout the Q&A session, Moore rarely missed an opportunity to talk up his players, especially libero Haley Jacob and outside hitter Liz Brenner. Granted, it’s hard not to say nice things about your players when you’re fielding softballs like “Why is Liz Brenner so good?” but the coach did a fine job of commending his players without being overly effusive about it.
After resting up, both squads cleaned up their play and minimized errors in the third and fourth sets, which the green team won 25-19 and 25-22, respectively. As you might surmise from the scores, all four sets were hard-fought contests with multiple lead changes. The lone exception was set three, which the green squad dominated for the most part thanks to Jacob’s strong defensive play, but even her superlative performance wasn’t enough to keep the white squad from nearly mounting a come-from-behind victory with a late rally.
If nothing else, the team scrimmage went a long way toward showing just how talented Oregon’s roster is across the board. Holdovers like Brenner, Jacob, Bergsma, and middle blocker Ariana Williams made their usual quota of great plays, but everyone who played that evening managed to earn some attention for their performance. And yes, that includes the players newly added to the team for the 2012 season.
Outside hitters Maddie Magee, Martenne Bettendorf, and Bethany Bair got in their fair share of kills, middle blocker Clelia DeFelice scored on some nicely executed blocks, and defensive specialist Tatum Norton contributed some highlight-worthy digs. The sixth member of the players, middle blocker Canace Finley, did not participate in the contest due to a foot injury, but Moore assured fans during the Q&A session that Finley can “jump really, really high.” In contrast to the regimented official game structure of the team scrimmage, the alumni game had more of a feeling of organized chaos – not because of anything that went wrong on the part of the team or the university, but because Coach Moore planned it that way.
“It was an opportunity to create stress on them by changing lineups,” said Moore after the game. “They didn’t know who was going to play until the last second and I did that on purpose. I wanted to see how we would handle that, and I thought we handled it very well, actually.”
In that respect, the shortage of former players on hand for the game (a few who had planned on participating had to leave earlier in the week to rejoin their professional volleyball teams in Europe) played right into Moore’s plans. In all, just four alumnae participated in the event – Lauren Westendorf (2001 – ‘04), Karen Waddington (2004 – ’07), Marija Milosevic (2007 – ‘08), and Dorina Hysenbelli – so current players were needed to bolster the opposing team. That gave Moore and his staff the opportunity to substitute players in and out of the lineup on both sides of the net.
Because the alumni team was composed mainly of players who had spent little or no time practicing with one another, the Ducks won handily in three short sets by scores of 25-9, 25-12, and 25-14. Individual stats for the alumni game are both unofficial and somewhat useless, since nearly every player on Oregon’s roster spent time playing for both teams, but some players nevertheless stood out in the contest despite all the shuffling.
Brenner led all participants in scoring, with Williams and outside hitter Katherine Fischer not far behind, while setter Lauren Plum and defensive specialist Natalie Bookout Gonzalez led in assists and digs, respectively. Bookout Gonzalez was also responsible for one of the more notable plays of the game, an ace for the alumni team in which her serve appeared to be a service error in the making before it dropped neatly into the back left corner of the opponent’s court.
All told, the Ducks finished their preseason looking like a highly talented team, albeit with a few rough edges here and there, but that’s exactly where Moore wants his players to be. “It’s a long, long season,” he said after the alumni game. “I’m not interested in being at our best [right now]. I don’t want to be special right now – we have to be special in December, and that’s what we have to do so we get ourselves where we need to go.”
“You know, we beat Penn State the first match of the year last year and then I thought we had a lull in the middle of the year,” he said a few moments later, expanding on the subject. “That’s what we’re trying to avoid.”
Looking ahead, the Ducks will travel to Ohio this Friday to compete in two back-to-back contests in the state, the Sports Import Classic on the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth, followed by the Ohio University Tournament, which runs from the thirty-first through the second of September. After that, the team begins its regular season with a home game on the fifth against UC Santa Barbara.