By Rob Moseley
Ariana Williams, known to everyone in the Oregon volleyball program as “Ari,” was a freshman the first time UO coach Jim Moore stood just out of bounds at practice and demanded that she hit him with the ball.
The fact that she was willing told Moore all he needed to know about Williams’ willingness to be coached. And why, entering her final go-round in the Pac-12 beginning Wednesday at Oregon State, Williams was able to mold herself into an all-conference caliber talent.
The point of having players aim just out of bounds at practice is twofold. Mechanically, it requires a shoulder turn that puts them in position for an attack down the line. Mentally, it gets them past the impulse to aim for the safety of the middle of the court.
Most players, Moore said, are resistant to the drill at first. Williams, now a four-year starter at middle blocker for the Ducks, was an exception.
“That, I think, really is the definition of coachability – to do something that makes no sense, but still go ahead and try it,” Moore said. “And now, that’s why she’s able to hit the ball down the line so well.”
Oregon’s volleyball program during Moore’s eight seasons has been littered with leaders who exceeded their potential as recruits. Sonja Newcombe became a two-time all-conference pick and second-team all-American, and Alaina Bergsma developed all the way into the national player of the year.
But none progressed as far as Williams has in her four years as a Duck.
“Without question, Ari is the most improved player I’ve ever coached, in my entire career,” said Moore, a 24-year veteran of college coaching. “To think she could be as good as she is now? Not a chance. And I think everything’s going to be great. It’s really hard to believe how good she is right now.”
Williams credits her development to two factors.
First, she’s the product of a single mother, Deborah Newell, and grandparents who imparted their blue collar, Midwestern values upon Williams. She learned early not to talk back to a parent, teacher or coach, but instead to respect the wisdom being offered.
Second, Williams is relentlessly positive. For much of her career, she was the only true middle blocker on Oregon’s roster. That meant staying out on the court for long stretches, and biting her tongue when she was ready to cry out with fatigue. And it meant even more grueling offseason workouts; if each position group was required to do 1,000 reps of a drill, well, Williams was a position group all herself.
“It was seriously so hard, and so overwhelming,” she said. “I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. But it made me so much better.
“If you have a bad day, you just have to realize it’s a bad day – it’s not a bad year, it’s not a bad life. You’re just having a bad day, and tomorrow’s a new day.”
Moore calls that attitude “a huge advantage” for Williams.
“Kind of like me, she always thinks it’s going to get better,” Moore said. “She obviously gets frustrated with herself; it’s impossible not to at this level. But she always remained positive. She always thought it would get better.”
Boy, has it. Williams has improved methodically over the course of her career, but has seen a major jump in productivity as a senior. She leads the Ducks with 4.09 points per set through 10 matches this fall, after averaging 2.72 in her career. She’s also hitting .428, having averaged .311 prior to this year.
Her blocking also has taken a big jump, to 1.07 per set. Over the previous three years, Williams averaged 0.63.
“She’s really good,” says Moore, who has to fight the urge to lean too heavily on his senior star. “It’s really easy to say, ‘You need to bail us out.’ For anybody, that can get to be too much; it’s a long season, and too much, too long is not good.
“She’s going to be best if she’s just allowed to play.”
Such was the case prior to Oregon’s current 10-day break, at the Fresno State Classic. Williams was named tournament MVP as the Ducks swept three matches in nine sets.
That set the stage for the start of Pac-12 play Wednesday in Corvallis, and for a big final go-round in the conference for Williams.
“I’m excited about how much we’ve improved,” she said. “I think we’re in a really good place.”