LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Texas ought to win.
Maybe it’s the eyeball test or perception or history, but Texas has immense firepower and, frankly, when you look at the Longhorns, you see a group that oozes height and athleticism and, when hitting on all cylinders, as good a volleyball team as you could imagine.
But then there’s Oregon, which simply confounds you.
Oregon may not look like it should be the team to hoist the trophy Saturday night at the end of the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship, but only a fool would count these Ducks out after what they’ve done the past three matches.
Texas (28-4) of the Big 12 was seeded third when this tournament was set up. The Longhorns beat Colgate, Texas A&M, Florida, and USC to get to this final four and then escaped Michigan in five on Thursday night, winning 15-11 in the fifth.
Texas hasn’t won the title since 1988 and had agonizing endings in the 2008 semifinal (losing to Stanford in five), in the 2009 title match (losing to Penn State in five), and in the 2010 semifinal (losing again to Penn State).
Oregon (30-4) of the Pac-12 was the fifth seed in the tournament, so it’s probably not fair to call the Ducks Cinderellas or anything like that. But, c’mon, Oregon didn’t make the tournament in 2010 and last year lost in the first round to Colorado State. The final four? Oregon has never been this far before and let’s face it, most people thought if anyone from the Pac-12 was going to be here, it would have been Stanford or UCLA or USC or Washington.
Yet in this tournament Oregon rolled past Northern Colorado and Dayton and then beat BYU before stunning Nebraska in Omaha last Saturday to make it here. And then Thursday the Ducks, down a set, stormed back and won the next three to send top-ranked and top-seeded Penn State back to State College.
Both teams have the respective players of the year from their conference. Texas outside hitter Haley Eckerman, a 6’3” sophomore from Waterloo, Iowa, was the Big Ten Player of the Year. Oregon boasts Alaina Bergsma, who gets everyone’s attention for having been Miss Oregon USA, but the 6’3” senior outside hitter from Chandler, Ariz., was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year.
But no one has anyone like Liz Brenner.
To wit: She started playing racquetball at age 5 and won a 6-and-under world championship, the first of 11 such titles. She’s a power forward on the Oregon women’s basketball team. Last year she was a backup catcher on the Oregon softball team that went to the world series. And this year she’s forsaking softball to compete in the javelin and shot put for the Ducks world-renowned track and field program.
“I absolutely love sports,” she said. “Love watching them, love playing them.”
Brenner stands 6’1” – “I’ve been this size since the sixth grade” -- is thick and muscular, moves with a grace that belies her build, and can flat out tattoo a volleyball. When Oregon beat Penn State, Brenner led with 17 kills, had 17 digs, and four block assists. Six of her kills came in that critical second set in which Oregon blew a 20-10 lead before winning 30-28 on Brenner’s big hit.
“I know I’m obviously not the typical volleyball player,” she said. “I’m not super tall or super skinny. But I just use what I have. I use the athleticism and I have the strength, which a lot of people haven’t seen and also I’m pretty tall for someone who plays all the way around, which people haven’t seen either. I think it surprises a lot of people that I can do what I can do.”
None of that is lost on Oregon coach Jim Moore, who signed Brenner as a volleyball player only. But then the last year the Oregon basketball team had some injuries and then the same thing happened in softball, and, well, Moore isn’t complaining.
“Everybody wants to know why she’s such a good serve receiver. It’s because she’s such a good athlete. She just has that hand-eye coordination that you can bring if you play a lot of sports,” Moore said.
“We have so many kids who do nothing but play volleyball right now and they look awkward doing everything because they’re just volleyball players. And that’s all they’ve ever done, where someone like Liz who plays multiple sports brings athleticism to our sport that we don’t have … She knows how to move in space better than most people.”
The lanky Bergsma, appreciates the energy her teammate brings to the team.
“She’s just such a competitor. She’s by far the purest athlete I’ve ever gotten to play with,” Bergsma said. “I mean, people might look at her and think she’s not the same kind of athlete you see a lot of in volleyball, like she doesn’t jump and touch 11 feet and those kinds of things, but I’ve never had a teammate like that. It’s amazing knowing that she’s going to do what has to be done when she needs to.”
Brenner, who had a 3.4 GPA this semester, and who, by the way, touches 10 feet, says volleyball is her favorite and “the sport I absolutely love.” This season she’s second on the team only to Bergsma with 436 kills and is hitting .297 and is by far the team leader in serve reception. She is second only to libero Haley Jacob in digs with 285.
Her team’s success this month isn’t a surprise to Brenner, who not only was twice the Oregon Prep Volleyball Player of the Year, but also the top basketball player.
“From the beginning of this season we knew we were going to be good,” Brenner said. “We knew with the group we have now that this was going to be an extremely important shot for us. All season we’ve been battling to get there and we’re not giving up. We’re going to keep fighting until we do it.”
After Saturday’s championship match, Brenner is taking a week off before joining the basketball team. That team is currently 0-8, and she’ll miss three more games before getting out there on December 31.
“My first game is against UConn,” Brenner said with a smile. Last year she played in 21 games and averaged 5.8 points and 5.8 rebounds. Saturday night’s game not withstanding, she can’t wait.
“I’ve been playing so many sports my whole life, like when I have my week off next week I’m going to be bored out of my mind,” she said with another smile. “Because I’ll have nothing to do.”