by Brady Johnson
Oregon Athletic Communications
EUGENE, Ore. – In a chilly, windy Des Moines, Iowa, Nils Schyllander sat at the team hotel the day before a vital match wondering if his team was even capable of playing the following day, much less winning.
On the eve of Oregon’s clash with No. 39 Drake, a team riding a 37-match win streak at home, a virus was spreading through the team like a “wildfire”. The Ducks had barely been able to take to the courts and practice that night. A few players hit balls and went through a light workout, while most rested.
As his team went to bed that night, most suffering the effects of a fever, Schyllander doubted his team’s chances to get a result in all honesty. What happened next was one of the most impressive things Schyllander has seen in his coaching career.
“We went out and got to four (points) in straight sets against a really good team, playing with the same intensity and energy we have all season,” said Schyllander. “In my 15 years of coaching at Oregon, I have never seen anything like that. It was incredible.”
Despite most players in the lineup being below 100% fit for the match, Oregon handed the Bulldogs their first home loss in three and a half years with a 4-0 sweep. Now ranked No. 24 in the nation – the program’s first ever top 25 ranking – the Ducks are 13-1 on the season and riding a 10 match win streak.
At the halfway point of the season, Oregon’s 2014 campaign is already filled with highlights. The Ducks defeated Washington on Feb. 28 for the first time in 10 years and two days later defeated the highest ranked opponent UO has ever beaten - No. 15 Boise State, and most recently snapped Drake’s huge home win streak. With a 4-1 record against ranked opponents and a best-ever ranking, Oregon is off to its best start in program history.
To Schyllander and associate head coach Jonas Piibor, UO’s consistent effort and focus no matter what the circumstances has been vital to its hot start. Never was that more apparent than in the Ducks’ impressive shutout win at Drake.
“We get a complete team effort every time out and have been playing with unbelievable energy,” said Schyllander. “That has been the norm rather than the exception, and I can’t really picture a single match where we haven’t come out really fired up.”
As Piibor explained, some teams are known for big servers, aggressive play or being particularly lethal in either singles or doubles. The Ducks, however, are known for playing with fire. Oregon has ridden its high intensity and fiery attitude to post the top winning percentage out of any team in the Pac-12 in nonconference play.
The Ducks first showed that fire and drive before the season even started. In Oregon’s first week of practice before the start of the fall tournament season, the team opened training by going through cardio exercises. Two players cramped up in the middle of their workout, but powered through and finished the practice strong.
That was the first moment Schyllander knew his team had the attitude capable of generating success, and it happened just a few days into their season.
The Ducks also have a number of other factors that have contributed to their hot start. They’ve focused on all the “little” things during the week that lead to success on match day, they’ve managed to get something out of every practice even on their off days and have great team chemistry.
Oregon is also simply more talented than it has been in the past. The Ducks have won all but one doubles point this season and have combined to win 87% of their singles matches this spring. There’s not a single easy out in UO’s lineup.
But, for a team looking for its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2004, there is no reason to rest on nonconference laurels at this point. Piibor used a basketball analogy, saying that his team may be up at halftime, but there is an entire half left to play.
That second half will begin on March 26 following a two-and-a-half week break of action as UO hosts Hawaii in the nonconference finale. The Ducks will then begin their eight-match Pac-12 regular season prior to the conference tournament. UO opens conference play by hosting No. 4 USC, No. 3 UCLA and No. 52 Utah.
“With USC and UCLA to start – two top five teams – that’s the toughest start you can have to the conference season,” said Schyllander. “But, every match will pose a challenge because every team is good. If you’re just a little bit off, it doesn’t matter who you play, you’ll be in for a long weekend.”
For a steadily rising program, Schyllander and the Ducks are now confident in their ability to challenge any team in the conference.
Oregon’s first break through under Schyllander and Piibor came in 2010, when UO posted it’s first above .500 record in eight seasons. The Ducks went 17-7 in 2012 and 16-8 last season, their winningest stretch in 10 years. With the number of accomplishments UO has already achieved this season, the program has cemented its status as a contender and growing power.
The next step for the program would be a positive finish in the challenging Pac-12 conference and a berth to the NCAA Tournament, which can be achieved by winning a conference or closing the season ranked in the top 40.
For Oregon to do that, Schyllander believes the Ducks will need to continue every one of the positive habits they’ve established this season while remaining prepared and focused for each match.
“You’re only as good as your last match, and we know that,” said Schyllander. “It’s great that we’ve won so far, but we haven’t even entered conference play yet. A lot can happen from here on out. We’ll take it one practice, one match, at a time and hopefully continue to gain confidence along the way.”