Depth key for Duck netters

No. 5-seeded Oregon takes on top-seeded Penn State to open Final Four Thursday
Oregon players, from left, Haley Jacob (9), Ariana Williams (7), Katherine Fischer (12), Lauren Plum (4) and Alaina Bergsma (2) celebrate a point scored against Nebraska in the third game in the NCAA Omaha regional Saturday.AP

In Jim Moore's 24 seasons as a head coach in collegiate volleyball, he has never had a team in which every player earned a letter.

Until now.

Of the many remarkable aspects to Oregon's first NCAA Final Four appearance — a trip secured with a 3-1 victory over Nebraska in Saturday's regional final — that fact stands out in Moore's mind.

"For me, that hasn't happened before at any time as a coach at the collegiate level," said Moore, who is in his eighth season at the helm of the UO program.

"It's real unusual."

There are 14 players on the UO volleyball roster and all spent time on the court in at least 20 of the Ducks' 29 regular-season matches to secure those letters.

On Saturday, when UO freshman defensive specialist Tatum Norton was subbed in during the fourth set of Oregon's historic win in Omaha, she became the 14th Duck to see action, something Moore didn't realize until after the match.

"I put her in specifically to dig balls in that situation," he said. "We ended up playing everyone on the team in the regional final ... that's pretty special."

The fifth-seeded Ducks (29-4) will meet top seed Penn State (31-2) in the NCAA championship semifinals in Louisville, Ky., on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. The other semifinal pits No. 3 seed Texas (27-4) against unseeded Michigan (27-11) at 4 p.m.

Both matches will be played at the 22,000-seat KFC Yum! Center. The two winners will meet on Saturday at 4 p.m. for the 2012 NCAA championship.

All of the NCAA Final Four volleyball matches will be broadcast live on ESPN2.

Oregon, which was ranked as high as second in the AVCA national polls this year, is in the midst of its most successful season in program history.

The Ducks, who flew to Louisville from Omaha on Sunday morning, have already set modern era school records in wins (29), NCAA seed (five) and conference finish (second). In addition, UO senior outside hitter Alaina Bergsma became the first Duck to be named Pac-12 player of the year.

In Omaha, the 6-foot-3 Bergsma more than lived up to her billing.

She was named NCAA regional player of the tournament after a match-high 23 kills against Nebraska. UO junior setter Lauren Plum and UO junior middle blocker Ariana Williams were also chosen to the all-tourney team in a vote by the media.

For his part, Moore fully expected to be coaching the Ducks in this year's Final Four.

"I'm not surprised at all," he said. "This is a special group and I would have been very disappointed had we not been here ... they play for each other and we have the talent. The pieces fit together well."

Moore gave high marks to UO senior libero Haley Jacob for keeping the Ducks focused after coming out "flat" and dropping the opening set to the Cornhuskers, 25-15, in front of a partisan crowd of nearly 10,000 fans.

"I was pretty sure we would regroup and get after them," Moore said. "Haley did a great job of getting on people. She was like, 'I believe in you, but you better get going or you'll have to deal with me.' I thought that was perfect."

Moore also paid homage to the Nebraska volleyball fans.

Omaha's CenturyLink Center has drawn the four largest volleyball crowds in NCAA history, including the top mark of 17,430 for a 2008 Final Four semifinal between Nebraska and Penn State. Saturday's NCAA regional final attracted 9,382 fans.

"The atmosphere was awesome," Moore said. "Nebraska fans are great. They're knowledgeable, they cheer really loud for the home team, and they don't cheer against people ... they've always been amazing."

Oregon, of course, is no stranger to Penn State.

The Ducks ended the Nittany Lions' NCAA record 94-match home win streak in last year's season opener with a 3-1 upset. At the time, the four-time reigning national champions (2007-10) were ranked No. 1 in the country.

Moore doesn't believe that outcome will have any bearing on Thursday's match.

"Last year has nothing to do with this year," he said. "It's completely different. I know they'll play hard and we'll need to play hard to compete with them."


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