For the fourth straight year the VERT Challenge kicked off the non-conference schedule for the Ducks; this year in Lincoln, Nebraska with Oregon getting the short stick in the bracket, drawing the second-ranked host Huskers and 3rd-ranked Texas in the two day, four team affair. The Florida Gators have been the fourth team in the series and hosted the event a year ago. Oregon hosted in 2016.
In his debut as Oregon coach one year ago Ulmer and the Ducks stunned the then 5th-ranked Huskers in Gainesville, Florida 3-1.
Following Oregon’s 1-3 (25-22, 25-23, 22-25, 25-18) loss in the opening match to Texas, the Huskers gained a measure of revenge on their home floor, sweeping the Ducks 3-0 (25-21, 25-21, 26-24).
No coach wants to begin the season with two losses but against the likes of the Huskers and the Longhorns, the long term benefits of playing two top-flight programs in a hostile environment should outweigh the negatives.
Now the task will be for Ulmer and his squad to absorb those lessons and incorporate them into their game plan before the conference schedule gets underway September 20 against Oregon State.
A nice mix of experience and new talent has the Ducks pegged to finish 3rd in what is arguably the nations’ toughest conference top-to-bottom.
Graduation has the Ducks starting the 2018 campaign without four year starters Taylor Agost and Maggie Scott but Ulmer has a wealth of talent and experience to call upon and a highly regarded class of recruits ready to step in behind.
Senior outside hitter Lindsey Vander Weide struggled with a lingering knee injury in 2017 and hopes to return to the form she showed in her freshman and sophomore seasons.
“She was dealing with a bad knee last season,” said Ulmer. “She has elevated her physical fitness and overall health.”
“My knee was bothering me constantly,” Vander Weide acknowledged. “I felt like I couldn’t really move and I wasn’t as agile as I was my freshman and sophomore years. It upset me quite a bit, but this year I’m feeling much better and I’m really excited to be able to play at my full potential.”
A healthy agile Vander Weide is a nightmare for opposing coaches but she won’t be the only weapon the Ducks will be able to feature.
Seniors Lauren Page and Sumeet Gill are well tested teammates alongside Vander Weide with Page drawing compliments from Ulmer for her improvement this fall.
Juniors Willow Johnson, Ronika Stone, Jolie Rasmussen are poised to elevate from reliable contributors as underclassmen and along with transfer Taylor Borup will wreck havoc on any defense that concentrates too heavily on shutting down the attack from Vander Weide.
Johnson was quick to point out the role Taylor Agost played in mentoring her for two years to assume the responsibilities of a team leader, both on and off the floor.
“She was a huge leader to me and I always looked up to her … It was nice to be able to get advice from her … and I feel like I’m ready to take on that leadership role … how our team works and how our culture is on and off the court.”
Maggie Scott served as Oregon’s quarterback for four years and left her name all over the program’s record books.
Fortunately for the Ducks, senior August Raskie had a productive summer in Croatia with the U.S. collegiate national team and with three years of experience at the collegiate level under her belt the Colorado Springs native is now ready to take control of the Oregon attack.
“She plays the position differently than everybody else,” said Ulmer. “.. she really moves the ball around well. She’s really understanding now how she can be a threat and how that can change the game.”
At libero, the Ducks must replace Alex Hojnar, a “glue” player for the Ducks in her senior season. Throughout training camp freshman Brook Nuneviller has attracted a lot of attention as a potential replacement but with a redshirt sophomore Brooke Van Sickle, true sophomore Kyra Hanawahine and true freshman Camryn Tastad rounding out the group, experience isn’t a long suit.
Still Ulmer has no reservations is saying that won’t be a concern. “Our ball control has been taken to another level,” said Ulmer. “There is so much quality depth in our back court. I don’t know who will play where, but I’m confident that all will get significant playing time throughout the season.
Middle blockers Karon Bacon and Chandlar Duff along with setter Kylie Robinson round out the new faces on the 2018 roster.
As he begins his second rodeo, Ulmer is more comfortable at the helm of the program he assumed a year ago with short notice and under difficult circumstances.
“Last year I was very unsure, tiptoeing around, trying to figure out how I make this work, how do I make everybody happy,” he said. “Now it’s my team and we’re doing things my way. I feel like it’s my own … I felt like I was borrowing something last year, and this year now it’s mine.”
Stanford and USC are slotted ahead of the Ducks in the preseason conference poll and in the wide open Pac-12 that’s right where Ulmer expects the program to be.
“I want to be in the top three in our conference every year,” he said. “If you are one of the top three in your conference, you’re in the Sweet 16. I think for us, we should at least be playing the second weekend in the postseason every year. There’s no reason for us not to be doing that.”
~ Rick Morgan