Nestled in the “Upper Left” quadrant of the country, the University of Oregon may in fact find itself in the lower right of the NCAA tournament bracket, but the Ducks should be central to the conversation of contenders in Omaha, Nebraska, next week.
It’s been an “Odd Duck” of a year to be sure, yet you could argue that Oregon has consistently been underrated all season.
The Ducks were picked to finish seventh in the Pac-12 in the preseason conference poll, did not make an appearance in the AVCA Coaches Poll until week six of the truncated season, and in this week’s pre-tournament rankings they are 16th.
Ultimately, Oregon (14-4) was seeded No. 10, which meant it got one of the NCAA Tournament’s top-16 seeds and the bye that comes with them. The Ducks play April 15 against the winner of the match between Army West Point, which won the Patriot League, and the ACC’s Notre Dame.
“I think because our conference is so deep we can all beat each other up,” fourth-year Oregon coach Matt Ulmer said. “We lost to Arizona State this past weekend and they are ninth, and they are good, they have got arms.
“They can play. I don’t think we get enough credit in the conference for how deep we are 1-12 and that goes against us sometimes.”
Oregon’s second-place finish in the Pac-12 matched the program’s highest in history. Before last weekend, the Ducks only lost to other NCAA-bound teams, Washington State to open the season, to UCLA the second weekend, and against Washington on March 5. They followed that with a reverse sweep two days later of the Huskies, who won the Pac-12 and got the No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
It was in that 25-27, 22-25, 25-23, 25-21, 15-10 victory that junior outside Brooke Nuneviller went off for 35 kills. That got her an early morning appearance the day after on VolleyballMag.com’s Mondays with Mick.
The Ducks’ identity is burnished on the defensive side of the court. Oregon led the Pac-12 by a wide margin in dig percentage by set with Nuneviller and libero Georgia Murphy in the top seven in the conference individually.
“Every individual defender we have is at a very high level,” according to Ulmer. “And our desire to keep the ball off the floor and play defense is very high.”
Nuneviller, is by no means a one trick pony. She won the Pac-12’s Offensive AND Defensive Players of the week February 15th, the first instance of that ever happening in the long and storied history of the conference. Earlier this week both she and right-side Gloria Mutiri made the Pac-12 all-conference team.
Nuneviller, a product of Chandler, Arizona, leads Oregon with 264 digs (3.83/set). Murphy, a sophomore from The Woodlands near Houston, had 247 digs (3.58/set).
Nuneviller also led Oregon in kills with 244 (3.96/set), 66 more than Mutiri, the left-handed junior right side from Sand Springs, Oklahoma, who transferred after two seasons at Kansas State.
Nuneviller, 5-foot-11, started as a libero at Oregon and then in 2019 moved to outside hitter, but badly sprained her ankle early that season.
“For her she did not like how 2019 went,” Ulmer said. “And she did not feel like she was scoring at a level that she needed to in the Pac-12 at the pin.
“She spent all of the pandemic getting in great shape. Her vertical is up four inches from 2019. That is massive, a huge change. It has allowed her to be a more athletic and physical outside than what she was before. She always had the shot making ability and the IQ but now she has the increased physicality to go along with that.”
It’s easy to spot Nuneviller on the court. She is the one flying all over the place on defense and providing encouragement to a young Ducks team featuring only one senior on the entire roster.
“She throws her body around like no one I have ever seen,” Ulmer said.
And while Nuneviller has been nails all season long for the Ducks, what has really turbocharged their progression this season has been the return of 6-foot-4 Taylor Borup from a debilitating ankle injury. Borup, an outside from Leesburg, Virginia, played her first two seasons at North Carolina. She came to Oregon in 2018 and played in 20 matches that season as she battled injuries.
Borup took 2019 as a redshirt year, and without her, the Ducks struggled to a 9-20 record, even with a couple of All-Americans in Ronika Stone and Willow Johnson.
Oregon’s schedule did the Ducks no favors that year as well. In a killer span of three days they lost on the road to Pittsburgh, Minnesota and Penn State, all ranked in the nation’s top eight at the time. Imagine playing those teams with a roster of 10 freshmen, one sophomore and seniors Johnson and Stone.
“In 2019 we were just an unbelievably young group. We did not have a sixth rotation upperclassmen on the court and that was what Taylor Borup would have been for us,” Ulmer said.
No one transferred, Mutiri came in, and Borup is healthy. She’s put up good numbers, averaging 2.09 kills and half a block per set.
“In the past years, players around her said just what a calming presence she was and that they never enjoyed playing with someone as much as her before,” Ulmer said. “And I think that is a great compliment coming from teammates. She is a rock, she just doesn’t get frazzled. She is consistent and she just brings positive energy and joy to the team.”
The 6-foot-2 Mutiri has fit in seamlessly to the Ducks attack.
“She scores and she scores in the big moments,” Ulmer said. “Sometimes her kills feel like they are worth a couple of points because of the momentum swings, because they are spectacular.
“And like Borup she brings maturity, perspective, and life experience and we are more prepared to face adversity because of Gloria.”
Said Nuneviller, “With the addition of Gloria Mutiri, she has been incredible for us. With Taylor Borup returning it has been a fun year.”
The Ducks run a 6-2 offense with sophomores Elise Ferreira (4.96 assists, 1.64 digs/set), a sophomore from Bakersfield, California, and Kylie Robinson (5.65 assists, 2.0 digs/set), a sophomore from Upland, California.
Heading into the tournament, the Ducks are healthy, something after the last couple of years Ulmer does not take for granted.
“Knocking on wood, all good. We have everybody available, everybody feels good. We have had a lot of the injuries over the last year a half.”
The Ducks could be peaking at just the right time. “I think our defense has been really good all year and I think our blocking is only getting better and our serving has really gotten better the last couple of weeks which has been a very important thing for us,” Ulmer analyzed. “Our last match against (Arizona State) was a very good offensive performance for us and so that will be something we will need to continue to balance out and do better at.”
In terms of how things look for the Ducks in Omaha, your guess is as good as any.
With no matches outside of conference, this year’s unique circumstances make it as tough a year as any to dope out the NCAA Tournament. Obviously, Oregon has not played Notre Dame or Army.
The Irish are a gaudy 14-3 and led by two-time All-ACC teammates, outside hitter Charley Niego and setter Zoe Nunez. Army, meanwhile, is 6-2 with four of its matches being against Holy Cross and the other two against Colgate, which it beat in the Patriot tourney final. Not too much to go on there.
“I think we can beat anyone,” Nuneviller said. “I really do. I think if we all play good volleyball we are hard to stop. I am hoping, and we are all expecting to make a good dent in this tournament and make a good run.”