By Rob Moseley
For a group of energetic, college-age women, there were vastly more enjoyable options available on a Friday night in Eugene.
Instead of going out with friends, Liz Brenner was berated in front of her Oregon volleyball teammates by a tattooed, muscle-bound former U.S. Army soldier. Rather than hit up a movie, Lauren Plum had her nose mere inches from the Moshofsky Center's turf, joining the rest of the Ducks for military crawls from one sideline to the other.
Less than eight months removed from the glamour of an NCAA Finals appearance, the UO women’s volleyball team spent Friday evening and early Saturday morning enduring “The Program,” a leadership and team-building seminar that employs military-style exercises. The Ducks did the same a year ago, and hope to reap similar benefits despite the loss of senior stars Alaina Bergsma and Katherine Fischer from the 2012 Final Four team.
This fall, Oregon will lean heavily on preseason all-conference picks Brenner and Plum, along with newcomers like transfer Serena Warner and freshmen Kacey Nady and Amanda Benson. It’s a new-look group that will need to find some cohesion quickly if the Ducks are to enjoy anything like the success they experienced a year ago.
“We’re just as strong as our weakest person; if they’re lagging behind, so are we,” Brenner said Friday night, her yellow UO T-shirt filthy from four hours of push-ups, bear crawls and the like on the Mo Center turf. “So we need everyone on the same page.”
In exit interviews with his team following their Final Four run, UO coach Jim Moore said, players repeatedly pointed to their experience in “The Program” as a key to the season. So he put them through it again, though this year’s version focused more heavily on communication and leadership.
In the spring, Moore asked his returning players who among them was best suited to replace the leadership of 2012 national player of the year Bergsma. There was little consensus.
“When we’re done with this, we have to have a different answer to that question,” Moore said prior to putting his team through the grueling weekend. “Because if we don’t, we’re in trouble.”
Now that “The Program” is in the rear-view mirror, Moore will have a chance to assess its benefits, beginning with the Ducks’ first fall practice today. Oregon will hold its Green and Yellow scrimmage Saturday in Matthew Knight Arena in 7 p.m., and opens the regular season Aug. 30 by hosting the four-team Oregon Classic.
But as the players endured two days of physical and mental anguish Friday and Saturday, there was no time to look any further ahead than the next challenge.
Friday’s session involved moving various equipment – sand bags, thick ropes, large logs and barbell plates – around the Mo Center via lunges, bear crawls and military crawls. Certain rules had to be abided that forced the Ducks to work in lock-step; designated leaders were made responsible for the team’s performance at any one time. That was followed by a puzzle of sorts that required the team to move weights between three cones, again by a set of strict rules that forced leaders to emerge and for teamwork to be utilized.
Less than nine hours later, the Ducks were at Matt Court early Saturday, for a test of physical toughness that involved hand-to-hand combat with the instructors. Within the space of half a day, Oregon’s resolve had been tested countless times, and the Ducks had emerged with a renewed confidence.
“It totally weeded out people’s strengths and weaknesses,” Plum said. “I felt like I got to know players better, and they showed me more than I ever knew they could.”
Moore intended for “The Program” to test both his newcomers and veterans, in different ways.
Oregon was recently picked fourth in the Pac-12 Conference, exactly where the Ducks finished a year ago before going on to the NCAA Final. That illustrates the depth and talent in the conference, and Moore wanted his newcomers to get smacked in the mouth by “The Program,” rather than experience a “welcome-to-college” moment out on the court in the coming weeks.
“I had them at our elite camp earlier this year, and sat down with them and said, ‘You have no clue what you’re about to experience,’” Moore said. “They had this attitude like, ‘We got it. Relax.’ So for having so many new people, this will be real good.”
The UO roster includes six freshmen, including the 6-foot-2 middle blocker Nady, a libero in Benson and athletic outside hitter Naya Crittenden. The Ducks also added Warner, a transfer from Ohio.
They’ll be asked to coalesce around a new leadership core that includes Brenner, Plum and senior middle blocker Ariana Williams. That trio was tasked with leading the first three rounds of exercises Friday night, to varying degrees of success.
Plum is the most natural on-court leader in the group, but she admits to having a different attitude off the court, so as not to be seen as the “mother hen” of the team.
“But being a consistent leader happens on and off the court,” Plum said. “That’s definitely something I’ve learned over the years.”
Departed seniors Bergsma, Fischer and Kellie Kawasaki embodied that a year ago. Bergsma was the Ducks’ most explosive offensive threat and Fischer their most well-rounded player, but all three received some level of all-academic honors as well.
When this year’s Ducks get deep into the season, and they’re balancing the rigors of Pac-12 play with the start of fall term at the university, they’ll need to demonstrate a similar level of maturity. This team might be even more talented, Plum said, but will it be able to match the consistency Bergsma and Fischer brought on and off the court?
As for Brenner, it’s a matter of speaking up more often. She may have a more balanced leadership approach than Plum, but Brenner isn’t nearly as likely to make her voice heard.
“But I’m getting better at it, learning to do it more,” said Brenner, who was berated by an instructor Friday night for not being more forceful while trying to lead the Ducks through some calisthenics. “Because I really think holding people accountable is huge to get us where we want to go. So it has to be done.”
Such was the message of “The Program,” as one of the UO athletic department’s own most successful programs endured it this past weekend.
“We still have a lot more to do,” Plum said. “But doing this has been the best thing for us, for sure.”