As Oregon volleyball falls in Sweet 16, its rising stars emerge

Oregon volleyball ended its season Friday in Minneapolis with a four-set loss to No. 7 North Carolina in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament.

The Ducks played well enough to win but were unable to close out the early sets. The Tar Heels, who rank second in the nation in blocks per set (3.23), jumped out to a 2-0 advantage before Oregon could muster a comeback and ultimately emerged victorious 25-23, 25-22, 23-25, 25-16.

Just as it has been all season, the fourth set was Oregon’s achilles heel against North Carolina. Overall, the Ducks defeated their opponents by an average of 2.63 points per set in sets one, two, three and five. But, they were outscored by .31 in set four, which they won only half of the time.

“We fought hard, we passed, we played well in the first three sets,” Jim Moore said. “Statistically we were in front after the first three, but it’s not about the stats, it’s about the points.”

Liz Brenner posted six kills and 12 digs in her final match, good for second in Oregon history in career points (1,775.5), third in kills (1,617) and 10th in digs (1,140). She finished her legendary Oregon career with a 91-26 record.

“I loved my career at Oregon,” Brenner said. “I could not have asked for better coaches, team and staff.” Brenner is one of five seniors graduating from the program this season, alongside setter Shellsy Ashen, defensive specialist Natalie Bookout Gonzalez, and middle blockers Allie Rogers and Serena Warner.

All in all the Ducks (23-10) finished tied for fourth in the Pac-12 with an 11-9 conference record and a No. 16 nationwide ranking. Two-seed Texas defeated North Carolina in the quarterfinals and will meet unseeded BYU, the shocker of the tournament, on Dec. 18 in the Final Four. No. 1 Stanford, with the only Pac-12 run deeper than that of Oregon, advances to a Dec. 18 semifinal against five-seed Penn State.

The Ducks have established themselves as a consistent powerhouse both in the Pac-12 and country, qualifying for the national tournament in eight of ten years under Moore. Oregon will return plenty of talent its 2015 campaign, in which Martenne Bettendorf looks to extend her offensive reign. Bettendorf led the team in points (489.5) kills (440) and kills per set (3.52) and maintained a hitting percentage of .309 in 2014.

Warner and sophomore Kacey Nady also turned in dynamic statistical seasons, ranking first and second on the team with 133 (10th in Pac-12) and 93 total blocks respectively; Bettendorf finished third with 91. Both middle blockers cracked the top ten in Pac-12 hitting percentage, with Warner finishing fourth (.365) and Nady in 10th (.335).

Sophomore Amanda Benson, who spent the summer after her freshman year in China as a Pac-12 all-star, not only led the program in digs (548) but finished fourth in the Pac-12 with 4.39 digs per set.

Freshmen Maggie Scott, Frankie Shebby and Taylor Agost each made significant contributions to the Ducks’ success in 2014 and will play key roles on the team in years to come. Scott, who would “rather eat glass than lose,” led all Pac-12 freshmen with a team-leading 6.65 kills per set. Outside hitter Shebby put up 293 kills per set, third on the team only to veterans Bettendorf and Brenner, while middle blocker Agost, who battled injuries all season, came on strong with 50 kills in her last seven games.

A young team loaded with firepower, Oregon still has sufficient room for improvement from its memorable 2014 season. With the rise of Bettendorf and the development of Benson, Agost and their eight other returning members, the Ducks can and should build off this year’s success with yet another deep run and shot at the Pac-12 title in 2015.

Follow Kenny Jacoby on Twitter @kennyjacoby

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