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OMAHA, Neb. -- Oregon's women's volleyball squad lost in rather agonizing fashion at Washington on Nov. 16. The Ducks had 14 match points in a marathon battle, but didn't win any of them in a five-set loss to the Huskies.
That could have struck a major blow to the Oregon players' confidence. Instead, it seemed to galvanize them. Because they haven't lost since.
Saturday, they reached a summit no previous Oregon volleyball team had. The Ducks beat Nebraska 3-1 in an NCAA regional final and are going to the program's first final four.
|Oregon players Haley Jacob (9), Ariana Williams (7), Katherine Fischer (12), Lauren Plum (4) and Alaina Bergsma (2) celebrate a point in Saturday's victory against Nebraska.|
"People are excited; it's something that's never happened for our program," said senior outside hitter Alaina Bergsma, who had 23 kills and 11 digs and was the dominant player in this regional. "But we know that we're not done yet.
"I feel very honored. We talk about our alumni, the people who turned the program around. A couple of years ago, Oregon wasn't even in the top half of the [Pac-12]. So for us, it means a lot."
This year, Oregon was the Pac-12 runner-up behind Stanford, and Bergsma was league player of the year. Bergsma also has gotten acclaim because she was Miss Oregon in this June's Miss USA pageant -- she somehow did the beauty-queen thing in her spare time as a high-level student-athlete -- and she might just add national player of the year to her trophy case, too.
"She would get my vote right now," Nebraska coach John Cook said of the honor that will be handed out next week in Louisville at the Final Four. "If they go to the [final] she should get it."
Standing next in the way of the Ducks, though, is five-time NCAA champion and this year's No. 1 seed, Penn State. Coach Russ Rose's Nittany Lions didn't have to deal with any Pac-12 teams in their regional, as they beat Kentucky on Friday and then fellow Big Ten school Minnesota on Saturday. Oregon and Penn State will face off next Thursday in one national semifinal.
Last season, the Ducks beat a young Nittany Lions squad at Penn State. That August 2011 victory by Oregon ended what was then a 94-match home winning streak by Penn State.
It was a win that showed Oregon really was entering the picture as a national contender under coach Jim Moore. Last season ended, though, with the Ducks losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Colorado State. Now, Oregon gets another meeting with Penn State.
"They're real good," Moore said of the Nittany Lions. "Russ is without question the best coach there is; they are incredibly well-coached. Dealing with those hitters is going to be a task, to say the least."
True, but dealing with Oregon's hitters is a tall order, too. Along with Bergsma's contributions, the Ducks got 13 kills from Ariana Williams and 12 from Katherine Fischer. It wasn't a great offensive match for Liz Brenner, with nine kills, but she did have 18 digs and is a constant threat.
"I've always sort of subscribed that the best defense is a good offense," Moore said. "So the way we put pressure on people is just siding out. If we keep doing that, they can't beat us. Or it least it will be tied for a long time. We proved that at Washington."
Moore chuckled as he said that, because he can smile in retrospect about that frustrating match last month with the Huskies. Like all their Pac-12 battles, though, it got the Ducks ready for what they've faced in the NCAA tournament, including the large and loud pro-Nebraska crowd that was revved up after the Huskers won the first set, 25-15.
But rather than get rattled, the Ducks got tough. The second set was pivotal; the Huskers had their chances, but Oregon won 25-22. And that changed the complexion of the match. Had Nebraska been up 2-0, even as good as Oregon is, it would have been tough for the Ducks to dig out of that big of a hole.
However, with the teams tied when they went into the break, Oregon came back out looking solid. The Ducks won the third set 25-18, then withstood a mini rally by Nebraska to take the fourth set 25-17.
Nebraska's seniors, who include Cook's daughter, Lauren, end their careers without a final four trip. That's something Nebraska players are accustomed to experiencing at least once in their stay in Lincoln, as the Huskers have made it that far 11 times previously.
"These guys did some great things," Cook said of his seniors. "Getting to Louisville is the one thing they did not get done, which is why this is so hard for them."
But by the same token, Moore has been in the game a very long time, and Cook can appreciate what this means to him, too. Moore began his head-coaching career in 1989 at Northern Michigan, and earlier this season got his 500th victory. Now in his eighth season at Oregon, he's at last headed to the final four.
"It's a milestone, but it's one step along the way," Moore said. "I really do mean that."
Because the Ducks' mission is still ongoing.
The Nittany Lions beat Minnesota twice during the regular season on their way to the Big Ten title. It was more of the same Saturday as the two met in a regional final.
Penn State junior Deja McClendon will get to play in the final four in her hometown of Louisville, Ky. She had 14 kills in a 3-1 victory over the Gophers. Ariel Scott led the way for the Nittany Lions with 25 kills.
Minnesota, now coached by former men's and women's U.S. Olympic team mentor Hugh McCutcheon, got the second set off Penn State, and pushed the Nittany Lions hard in the third. But Penn State won that one 26-24, then took the fourth set 25-18.
Penn State won four NCAA titles in a row from 2007 to '10, and also won the 1999 national championship.
The home team in this regional rolled, sweeping Florida on Friday and then USC on Saturday. The Big 12 champion Longhorns were led by Bailey Webster's 17 kills, and they hit .424 in the match. There just wasn't anything the Trojans could do to slow down Texas.
It is the eighth final four appearance for the Longhorns, and their fourth in the past five years. But Texas' only NCAA title came in 1988.