August is nearly upon us, and that means a new school year, and a new season of Oregon sports, is right around the corner. And I think I speak for everyone with my excitement for the return to action of the most exciting Oregon team of 2012.
Wait, football? Please, those hacks couldn't even make it to a national championship game. Sure, they won the Fiesta Bowl, but what does that get you? A bunch of mediocre tortilla chips and some burly men holding up a gold lamé football. I'm all for burly men and gold lamé, but that just isn't good enough to grab my attention. Football's great and all, but what am I really excited for?
Volleyball, baby. Volleyball.
Head coach Jim Moore has done to Oregon volleyball what Chip Kelly did to Oregon football, only if Chip Kelly hadn't had Rich Brooks or Mike Bellotti to lay groundwork for him. In the four years prior to Moore's hiring in 2005, Oregon volleyball went 43-85, with a 1-53 Pac-10 record. Not a typo. 1-53. The last time Oregon won more than 3 conference matches prior to Moore's arrival in Eugene? 1991, when the Ducks won 4. Yet, in Year 2 of the Moore era, Oregon made the NCAA tournament. In Year 3, they won their first postseason match since 1984, and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. And last year, the Ducks not only made their first-ever Final Four, but upset #1 overall seed Penn State to advance to the national championship match. And although Oregon lost that final match to Texas, the Ducks have established themselves among college volleyball's elite, and look to contend for another national title in 2013. Here's how this team shapes up:
- The table will be set - Any volleyball team that dreams of a national title needs a reliable and multi-talented setter, and Oregon has the best in the nation in senior Lauren Plum. Plum led the nation in assists in 2012 with over 13/set, and was named Pac-12 setter of the year, and earned two First team All-American honors. She needs 1,207 assists this year, a number she has surpassed in all three of her seasons, to supplant Nevena Djordjevic as Oregon's all-time assists leader.
- Oregon's depth is up the middle - Pac-12 honorable mention selection Ariana Williams and sophomore Canace Finley, Oregon's two leading blockers in 2012, both return to the team at middle blocker. Williams is coming off a strong junior campaign in which she led the Ducks in hitting percentage (.334) while racking up 301 kills to go with her 83 blocks, and Finley followed up her stellar postseason play, including a team-high 6 blocks in the upset of Penn State, with a stint on the United States U20 National Team. Junior Serena Warner, a transfer from Ohio University who ranked 36th in the country in blocks in 2012, and three freshmen, including 6'3" recruit Haylee Roberts, add to an already crowded middle of the court.
- Brenner is a lock, but who else will step up? - 2012 NCAA Player of the Year Alaina Bergsma has graduated, and Oregon looks to replace 572 kills she amassed last season. With Katherine Fischer, Oregon's #3 scorer from last year, also graduated, Coach Moore and staff will have to look to some new faces to pick up the slack. Scoring from the outside starts with über-athlete Liz Brenner. Brenner was second on the team in both kills and digs in 2012, and after a successful tour of China with a Pac-12 All-Star team this summer, looks poised to assume the #1 scoring responsibility. But after Brenner, the scoring experience is thin. Sophomore Martenne Bettendorf played in 29 matches last year as a freshman, and sophomore Maddie Magee saw action in 26, but the two had only a combined 67 kills. Look for redshirt senior Bethany Bair to make an impact, after transferring from Weber State and sitting out 2012. Bair was named All-Big Sky honorable mention twice while at Weber State, and led the conference in service aces as a sophomore. And don't sleep on true freshman Naya Crittenden, one of Volleyball magazine's top 50 recruits in 2013 and a tremendous athlete.
- Who's gonna wear the different shirt? - 2012 Digs leader Haley Jacob has graduated, as well as service percentage leader Kellie Kawasaki, leaving perhaps the biggest void in the back row in Coach Moore's tenure. Junior Natalie Bookout-Gonzalez has the seniority, and sophomore Tatum Norton played 48 sets last year, the most of any returning defensive specialist. But watch out for freshman Amanda Benson, the 2012 Arizona player of the year, the top-rated libero recruit in last year's class, and the libero for the US Junior National team for their 2012 gold medal-winning performance in Nicaragua.
- Oregon vs. washington - 9/27 @ MKA: The only 2013 meeting between the Ducks and huskies comes in Oregon's second Pac-12 match of the season. Anyone in town to watch Oregon football take on Cal at Autzen on the 28th should start their weekend at the Matt.
- Oregon vs. UCLA - 10/11 @ MKA, and vs. USC - 10/13 @ MKA: The Ducks get no scheduling favors, with their first three conference home games of the year coming against the three of the best teams in the Pac-12.
- The Bay Area road trip - 10/23 @ Stanford, 10/25 @ Cal: Stanford is always dangerous, and Cal looks to rebound from a disappointing 2012 with a return to the national elite.