Ducks prepare for another shot at NCAA glory

It seemed like déjà vu for head coach Jim Moore and the Oregon Duck volleyball team. There they were again in the Sweet 16, and within reaching distance of a trip to the Elite Eight. But just like in 2007 when the Ducks fell 3-1 to UCLA, Oregon lost 3-2 to the Iowa State Cyclones and missed out.

Moore was so upset that it took him all winter to get over it. He went home and tried to forget about the way the Ducks dropped the final three sets of the match after winning the first two. He tried to forget that the Ducks were up in the third set, poised for the sweep when the Cyclones went on a run and tore through Oregon like, well, a Cyclone.

But now the No. 12 Ducks are back for another shot at the NCAA Tournament, with a hybrid look of new and old players. All-American Gorana Maricic is gone, as is career digs leader Katie Swoboda. But in their places are some very talented freshmen and a senior leader who is ready to make sure this season doesn’t end early.

“It’s dramatically different from last year,” Moore said of senior captain Sonja Newcombe. “There’s no question in who’s running the show.”

Newcombe, who through the team’s first six matches leads the team in kills per set and kills, said she’s excited for the Pac-10 season to start, and this year’s team will feature a larger blend of speed and athleticism.

“I think physically that we’re different. We’re trying to play faster and we need more people to contribute,” Newcombe said. “It won’t be just one or two people carrying the team.”

“I think we’re faster,” Moore added. “Sonja is unbelievably quick from the back row. We just need to be consistent and hit the ball in every time, and that’s our goal.”

The change in strategy to go with a quicker lineup with threats coming from every position on the court is something Newcombe and the team have welcomed. Newcombe, middle blocker Neticia Enesi and outside hitter Heather Meyers may be the big three this year, but she says freshman Katherine Fischer and sophomore Dana Stephenson will also be in the fold for kills.

“The hitters are a lot faster at every spot,” Newcombe said. “Kat is faster, Neticia is faster and Heather is, too … we’re more unified. It’s just more responsibility for everyone.”

So far this season, it looks like the team hasn’t missed a beat from last year. The women didn’t lose a set until Sept. 8 against Portland State, and the freshmen have been able to step up and fill vacated spots. Most notably, it has been the play of Fischer that has Moore excited. Through the weekend she was averaging 1.5 kills per set and had the second most service aces on the team with 10.

“Katherine is as good a volleyball player that we have in terms of overall skill,” Moore said. “She does so many things very, very well. Everybody has stepped up, though.”

But although her stats don’t suggest she’s a freshman, Fischer says there are still a lot of things she can learn.

“Everyone is bigger and faster and stronger,” Fischer said. “They hit harder, jump higher. It’s just a completely different experience.”

“I can’t really tell if I’m getting better,” she added. “I do know I’m getting more stuff right. I’m really focusing on what I need to do.”

Newcombe says Fischer fits in with what the team is trying to do.

“She’s really fast and she’s good on defense,” Newcombe said. “She also can hit the ball from the back row, which is nice because we haven’t had that combo of being able to hit from the back and play defense. A couple of our strengths are defense, which is kind of nice because we haven’t been known for that in the past, and I think our speed is as well. I think our speed will be to our advantage.”

But there is still one spot the Ducks need to fill: libero. Moore has yet to name a starter between senior Amanda Westrick, and freshmen Haley Jacob and Kellie Kawasaki.

“I really wish that we would have known by now,” Moore said. “Kelly is the strongest in serve receive, but she struggled on defense. Amanda is as disciplined as anyone because she’s the most experienced in the system and Haley is really, really quick. She just has to have some experience.”

While that competition rages on, the Ducks prepare for what could be one of the toughest conference tests since Moore became head coach, with seven teams ranked in the top 25.
“I think we’re really good,” Fischer said. “Jim always tells us how good we are, and I believe him. But we’ll have to see once Pac-10 starts.”

The Ducks start out Pac-10 play with No. 3 Washington at home on Sept. 25.

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