By Rob Moseley
The refrain had been a common one for the Oregon volleyball team this season – when an opponent made a run at the Ducks, players admitted, they didn’t always respond well.
In a confounding season that sees Oregon at 13-9 and 6-6 in the Pac-12, entering this weekend’s road trip to the southern California schools, that might have been the biggest issue. When they found themselves in a brawl, the Ducks hadn’t been fighting back.
Did last season’s trip to the NCAA final make Oregon complacent? Did seniors like Alaina Bergsma and Kat Fischer supply the fight a season ago? Those seemed like valid questions by Friday night of last weekend, when the Ducks lost to Arizona State – ending the Sun Devils’ seven-match losing streak.
That was a match the Ducks felt they should have won. Losing it, however, may have supplied enough frustration to get Oregon on track in the stretch run of the regular season.
The next day, Saturday at Matthew Knight Arena, the Ducks won a five-set match for the first time this season. Oregon overcame a deficit to win the first set, and rallied after being down two sets to one. Then the UO women won a war of a fifth set that included a long rally when the Ducks led 11-10, the match seemingly on the line given the momentum that point would provide.
Oregon won it, and moments later took the match.
“This is huge for us, especially winning a match in five,” UO junior Liz Brenner said. “It’s a big confidence-builder for some of the younger girls.”
When the fifth set began, a pop song was playing on the PA in Matthew Knight Arena. It was a moment in which the Ducks, losers of their only five-set match of the season at Cal eight days earlier, might have been uptight.
Instead, Brenner – the team’s leader now that Bergsma and Fischer have graduated – was singing along to the music.
“You’ve got to be relaxed, got to move on to the next point,” Brenner said later. “I think this says a lot about us, how we never gave up and kept fighting. Even if things weren’t going our way, we stuck with it.”
They’ll have to keep it up this weekend. The Ducks are at No. 4 USC on Friday, and at UCLA on Sunday afternoon. The match against the Bruins, at 1 p.m., will be televised by Pac-12 Networks.
Senior Arianna Williams was pleased with Oregon’s fight against Arizona. But she knows that’s no guarantee the Ducks will be able to muster a similar effort each match going forward.
“We’ve proven that we’re good enough to hang with people,” Williams said. “But it depends – are we going to continue to fight, or continue to roll over?”
The win over Arizona featured an intriguing coaching twist that could be a factor going forward. Rather than a traditional “5-1” rotation using setter Lauren Plum, UO coach Jim Moore went to a “6-2,” rotating backup setter Shellsy Ahsen in along with 6-foot-2 freshman Naya Crittenden, who took Plum’s spot in the front row.
That allowed the Ducks to improve their blocking presence, helping limit the Wildcats to a .176 hitting average for the match.
Crittenden, a raw but athletic newcomer, only found out about the strategy change the morning of the match, and she’s uncertain whether it will be used this week. But she stepped up when the Ducks looked to her.
“It means a lot,” she said. “I knew I needed to go in and get points. I knew everything was crucial.”
As is every match left this season for the Ducks, if they hope to keep their postseason aspirations alive.