By Rob Moseley
As the national player of the year last fall and the most photogenic contestant at the 2012 Miss USA Pageant, Alaina Bergsma was the face of Oregon volleyball the past four years, figuratively and literally.
This weekend, a new era begins for the No. 8 Ducks, who open the regular season Friday at 7 p.m. against Eastern Washington in the Oregon Classic, at Matthew Knight Arena. With Bergsma having graduated, along with four other seniors including Katherine Fischer, the UO volleyball team will forge a new identity for itself, beginning at the outside hitter positions.
It will be a while before the Ducks can match the experience lost when Bergsma departed. But the Ducks will be more athletic at her position, and more imposing on the block, thanks to the presence of converted middle blocker Canace Finley and the tantalizing talent of freshman Naya Crittenden.
When the Ducks open play Friday night, they’ll feature 2012 all-American Liz Brenner along with Finley and fellow sophomore Martenne Bettendorf. Transfer Bethany Bair, a former all-Big Sky honorable mention selection who redshirted last fall, will be waiting in the wings along with Crittenden, a raw but amazingly athletic addition.
“The reality is, we’re not going to replace (Bergsma) in any way, shape or form,” UO coach Jim Moore said. “But we don’t have to. The combination of Martenne, Liz and Canace can kind of equal the combination of Liz, Kat and Alaina.”
Finley is a returning starter who led the Ducks in blocks per set as a freshman in 2012. Despite that contribution, Moore moved her to the right side in January; the position doesn’t require as much lateral quickness or arm swing speed as playing in the middle, and ultimately could be a better fit for Finley’s skills.
One of the toughest elements of the transition is timing: As a middle blocker, Finley needed to get into the air as fast as possible to anticipate a set to her for a quick strike.
“Right side, you’ve got to wait and see the set, and not be the first person up in the air,” Finley said. “It took a while to get used to, but I’m getting used to it.”
Should Finley need a substitute, Bair is likely to get the call, Moore said. The freshman Crittenden is more likely to be used situationally, and more often – backup setter Shellsy Ashen can enter the rotation to play in the back row, and Crittenden can enter up front in place of starting setter Lauren Plum.
That plan minimizes Crittenden’s exposure to playing back-row defense, which isn’t a strength yet. And it takes advantage of her 6-foot-2 size up front, and a level of athleticism that is blowing away teammates in practices, and which impressed Bergsma at Oregon’s alumni match last week.
Crittenden only began playing top-level club volleyball two years ago, and by her own admission is playing catch-up in her fundamentals.
“It’s really having to focus, and learn the game as much as I can in a short amount of time,” said Crittenden, a former youth sprinting standout whose father ran track at Cal and whose brother played football at USC. “There are so many times I wish I would have started earlier. But I’m still thankful I found it when I did.”
The Ducks can only wonder what sort of impact Crittenden’s athleticism might have had on their NCAA championship loss to Texas last season.
Concerning how quickly Crittenden can develop, “it’s just playing,” Moore said. “She’s just got to play. We’ve just got to let her play and stay on her about the things she has to do. But physically, she’s got it.”
Finley was also late to the sport. Her father played in college and beyond, and Finley would hit with him in their backyard as a kid.
“I hated it, because it wasn’t ever my idea,” Finley said. “I only ever wanted to do stuff that was my idea, so I played soccer.”
As an eighth grader, Finley accepted that her height and skills fit the sport, and she joined the volleyball team as a middle blocker. Now playing a new position, Finley can provide some of that blocking background on the outside, in ways Bergsma – for all of her other talents – did not.
“Canace blocks balls nasty, and Naya’s the same way,” Moore said. “Just a huge blocking presence.”
Despite the departure of talents like Bergsma and Fischer, Moore has said the Ducks may be even more physically talented in 2013. Finley and Crittenden embody that, and now will go about trying to gain the experience that made their predecessors so successful.
“I want to do my best to help the team,” said Crittenden, a Volleyball Magazine Fab 50 recruit. “But I know I have a lot of developing to do. I just try to keep myself very calm and execute the best I can. I don’t want to overdo it.”
Finley, too, isn’t getting caught up in the pressure of trying to replace the departed face of UO volleyball, Bergsma.