A highly-touted group of underclassmen has lived up to the hype this season for Oregon volleyball
A year ago, Oregon assembled a recruiting class ranked fourth nationally, which at the time was the highest in school history.
The 2015 group of freshmen featured five elite prep athletes, each ranked 54th or better on the Prepvolleyball Senior Ace list, an Oregon record.
With the help of the young athletes, led by outside hitter Lindsey Vander Weide, who earned an all-Pac-12 selection during her freshman campaign, the Ducks finished the season with a 16-14 record and participated in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before dropping to Wisconsin.
But after reloading with yet another loaded recruiting class from the 2016 class, Oregon hopes for a better season that will lead to a longer stay in the tournament.
Before this season, the Ducks broke the school record again, welcoming a group of players that accumulated to the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation. They were led by middle blocker Ronika Stone, Oregon’s top recruit in history at No. 10. Rounding out the class was Jolie Rasmussen (No. 20), Willow Johnson (No. 27) and Brooke Van Sickle (No. 88).
Their arrivals came with high expectations that were promptly shattered.
During the Ducks’ Pac-12 opener against Oregon State on Sep. 22, the group of freshman tallied 30 kills and only three errors between them.
After the game, when asked whether he was surprised by the freshmen’s dominating performances, Oregon head coach Jim Moore said, “Willow a little bit, but man, she’s good.”
“We knew they were good,” he added.
During Johnson’s first game in an Oregon jersey, she racked up five kills and two blocks against then-ranked No. 10 Florida. She has only gotten better. In the win against ASU on Sep. 30, she hit .500, while tallying 10 kills on 16 attempts.
“Willow probably is the one that’s caught us most by surprise, but boy, has it been a real pleasant surprise,” Moore said. “We sort of thought that might happen.”
In the Oregon State win, Rasmussen and Stone led the team with 11 kills each. Because of their performances, the three freshman hitters spent a lot of the game on the court.
“Every time we go up there, I yell, ‘Fresh meat!’” Stone said. “Once one of us gets a kill, we all get really excited for each other.”
Stone has quickly established herself as an offensive threat. After back-to-back wins against ASU and Arizona earlier in the season, Stone was named the Pac-12 Freshman Player of the Week. During that weekend, she led the team with five blocks in both games. Against Arizona, she also led the team in kills with 13 on a .625 hitting percentage.
“We knew that kid was going to play; there’s no denying it,” Moore said. “The funny thing is she hit .550 in the World Junior Championships — well she’s hitting .500 right now in conference play. She’s pretty good.”
Oregon’s offense is led by the underclassmen. Out of the Ducks’ five kill leaders, four of them are underclassmen, with junior outside hitter Taylor Agost being the exception. Vander Weide leads the team with 281 kills. She is followed by Agost with 205, while Rasmussen, Stone and Johnson make up the rest of the top five.
The Ducks offense may be so effective because the freshmen haven’t been scouted very well yet. After all, Oregon has the least amount of blocks against them in the Pac-12 with 92.0.
“[Moore] likes every one to have sets so that the other team’s defense doesn’t really know what’s going to come at them,” Vander Weide said.
With such a young team, Oregon has the potential to be a national contender for years to come. After all, as this class of freshman ages, the Ducks are only expected to get better.
After a road trip last weekend that yielded two wins against No. 11 Washington and Washington State, Oregon has won three straight matches. They are tied for first place in the Pac-12 with a 10-4 record.
“This whole class has been awesome and they made everybody feel better,” Moore said. “They are a huge part of where we are.”
Follow Hannah Bonnie on Twitter @hbonnie03
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