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Drukarev: Ducks volleyball team suited for success

Jim Moore was not pleased. Sitting in his office on a cold fall morning, Moore tried to wrap his head around the fate of his Oregon volleyball team.

Despite being ranked No. 24 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll and compiling a 19-11 season record, the Ducks were snubbed for a bid in the NCAA Tournament.

“I think it’s wrong, I think it’s flat out wrong,” Moore said at the time, late November of 2010. “Basically the definition of an injustice is that the victim is somebody who was done wrong and they don’t deserve what they got. We didn’t deserve what happened to us, and we know it.”

Fast forward nine months, to Friday, Aug. 26, 2011. Oregon, which lost star Heather [email protected]@[email protected]@ to graduation in the offseason, visited No. 1 Penn State, four-time defending champions, including of the 2010 NCAA Tournament to which Oregon was not invited.

That day, the unthinkable happened.

Playing in 90-plus-degree [email protected]@[email protected]@, with nearly 4,000 hostile fans determined to make life difficult for the Ducks, Oregon stunned the volleyball world, and yours truly, with a 3-1 victory.

Frankly, even with the added motivation of being snubbed, I was skeptical of the Ducks’ chances to earn a spot among the upper echelon of Pac-12 programs this year, let alone upset the No. 1 team in the nation. Sure, it returned a number of solid players from last season’s squad, but as a frequent observer of the team, I didn’t think they would be able to overcome Meyers’ absence and compete for the inaugural Pac-12 crown.

Meyers, for one, didn’t share my view. When I spoke with her last year following Oregon’s season, she predicted the 2011 Ducks team would come out on fire.

“The kind of mindset they’re going to have is, ‘OK, we didn’t get in but now we’re going to kick everyone’s (butt) next year and do well,’” she said.

Other players on the team echoed those sentiments — that getting snubbed by the NCAA selection committee would motivate them to work harder, practice longer, and do whatever it took to prove their doubters wrong.

If early returns are any indication, those words ring true. After its win over Penn State, Oregon did drop a match to No. 9 Minnesota, but has been mostly dominant. The Ducks won six matches in a row entering the start of Pac-12 play this weekend, winning all 18 sets they’ve played. They followed that up with a sweep of Arizona and a 3-1 win over Arizona State. Granted, the competition hasn’t exactly been Pac-12 caliber, but it’s hard to put a negative spin on seven straight shutouts.

With conference play now upon Oregon, there’s no guarantee the Ducks will sustain their sterling play. Despite strong starts for Alaina Bergsma, (.303 hitting percentage, team-leading 161 kills) and Ariana Williams (.326, 84 kills), and the emergence of talented freshman Liz Brenner (.344, 62 kills), the Ducks are a young bunch, and don’t have a go-to player like Meyers.

But then again, maybe that’s a good thing. Last year, there were times when it seemed like many players stood around and waited for Meyers to take over. This year, the Ducks won’t have that luxury. Each player on the team will need to be ready when her number is called.

Several other factors are in the Ducks’ favor. Bergsma, a talented outside hitter, is completely recovered from hip surgery, and will play full-time. Sophomores Lauren Plum and Williams, who both earned plenty of playing time as true freshmen last season, have another year and offseason under their belts, and should be better. Same goes for juniors like Katherine Fischer, Haley Jacob and Kellie Kawasaki.

Only time will tell, of course, whether that group has enough talent to compete on a day-in, day-out basis with the best teams in college volleyball. Either way, the Ducks deserve credit for using the NCAA Tournament snub of a year ago to fuel their competitive spirit. Not all teams would have responded the way Oregon has.

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