Oregon volleyball (9-2) is currently third in the Pac-12. And holding bronze out West is quite the achievement, for a couple of reasons.
The Pac-12, as far as volleyball goes, is a murderer’s row. Of the 35 Division I national championship trophies, the conference has taken home 14, and almost every team currently has a winning record. The only asterisk is the Bears, who bring up the conference caboose at 6-6.
Eight Pac-12 teams received Top 25 votes in the most recent NCAA rankings, and half of the conference made the cut — including the No. 24 Ducks. On Friday, Oregon gave the struggling Bears a quick nibble of the whooping they can likely expect to become their full course in the coming months by laying a goose egg on them amid the tall firs in Eugene, 3-0. There’s no doubt that life in the Pac-12 is hard — but for Cal, the going’s been damn near impossible.
The team’s offense has become one-dimensional and therefore predictable. As impressive as it looks that senior setter Alyssa Jensen leads the Pac-12 in assists with 11.43 per set, adding a gaudy 29 Friday, her heavy usage rates are plummeting Cal’s efficiency. Sure, 29 dimes isn’t bad at all — but when the entire team has 32 and no one else has more than one, they don’t exactly field a multivariable attack.
The Bears are also incapable of capitalizing on their opponent’s single-dimensionality. On Friday, Oregon hitter Lindsey Vander Weide chalked up an astounding 25 kills — the equivalent of winning an entire set herself. No other Duck had more than six. Toward the end of the match, Oregon head coach Jim Moore even admitted his team simply started setting their sophomore.
“I’m disappointed in the setting,” said the victorious Moore to Oregon Athletics. “In the third set we just decided we were going to set Lindsey and we don’t do that.”
But Cal had no answer. Knowing exactly where the ball was coming from still couldn’t spur a comeback down the stretch.
And maybe that hindrance loops back to Cal’s own inherent predictability. When teams know that Cal wants to run its offense through Jensen and is trying to find her on the second touch to set and hopefully assist a teammate, they look for ways to stop her. Among other tactics, ball denial of the best Bear playmaker becomes obvious.
If an opponent spikes toward Jensen, forcing her to make a dig on first contact, she can no longer be there for the second touch — she can no longer make her assist. This tactic forces other Bears to become distributors: And as the numbers reveal, that’s not currently a possibility. Jensen’s quickly rising dig numbers (second on the team with 9 Friday, behind only dig-machine Maddy Kerr) therefore come as no surprise.
All of these issues do get compounded against a great team like Oregon. The Ducks have one of the most dominant defenses in the country and have now won 27 of their last 28 sets while hitting a kill percentage of .356 and holding their opponents to just .129.
But while Cal can be grateful that it mustn’t baste the Ducks again, the team’s already white-hot conference slate is somehow still only warming up, and Bear stew, at the moment, looks to be on the menu.
Austin Isaacsohn covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected].