Season opens with Oregon taking down Nebraska in four

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Matt Ulmer was almost giddy.

And who could blame him?

“Pretty amazing,” Ulmer said. “First victory.”

Indeed it was, both for Ulmer as a head coach and Oregon in the historically tough open to the college volleyball season, the VERT Challenge.

The 18th-ranked Ducks beat No. 5 Nebraska 25-20, 25-21, 24-26, 25-23 in a match that gave a good look into where Oregon is now and where the Huskers might be later on.

And it should be pointed out from the get-go that whereas Oregon is almost completely intact from 2016, this was a totally new-look Nebraska team, with All-Americans Amber Rolfzen, Kadie Rolfzen and Justin Wong-Orantes graduated and senior setter Kelly Hunter shelved for the match as she recovers from an undisclosed minor injury.

This is Oregon’s third time in the VERT and it was 0-4. Saturday, the Ducks play No. 1 Texas.

“My first win and that’s pretty cool, but I just told the team that it’s something you dream about your whole life and you work for it and you get in the moment and what a cool thing,” said Ulmer, 33, who had been an Oregon assistant and got the job last March when the school replaced longtime head coach Jim Moore.

“And then I told them for your reward you’re gonna get to play Texas tomorrow. Which they cheered for.”

Oregon, which had plenty to cheer about, showed a lot of balance and scrappiness.

“We didn’t play clean enough for us to put pressure on Oregon,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “We dug balls but didn’t transition very well to put pressure on them and make them pay. We got good digs and tips, but we tipped too many back, so our transition game wasn’t very good but I thought our serve-and-pass was good, we played good defense, our blocking was OK and we got better as the match went on.”

Junior outside Lindsey Vander Weide led  Oregon with 14 kills but hit .167 in a season opener in which neither team was razor sharp. For that matter, Oregon hit .222 and Nebraska .174. Sophomore Willow Johnson, obviously a much-improved player, added 13 kills and hit .387. Senior Taylor Agost added 12 kills and the remarkable Brooke Van Sickle, who is just 5-9, had 11 kills — the last two coming on Oregon’s last two points — and a match-high 22 digs. Both stats are career-highs.

“She’s a stud all-around player,” Ulmer said of a player listed on the roster as an outside/libero/defensive specialist who in 2016 played all those positions. But with outside hitter Jolie Rasmussen still on the mend, Van Sickle got the nod and had a blast.

“We obviously wanted to win, but we wanted to come out and give it our all and have fun and see what we could do,” said Van Sickle, who is from Battle Ground, Wash., whose mother. Lisa, played at Hawai’i Pacific and then professionally, and whose father, Gary, played at Hawai’i.

“Obviously we did pretty good.”

Junior setter August Raskie had 14 digs and senior libero Alex Hojnar had 12 digs.

“I just thought it was a lot of fun,” Hojnar said. “That was the biggest thing on the court. Even when we were down and points got scored against us we came together and we had a lot of energy. We fought as a unit. It was very team-oriented. It was super exciting and very fun and I’m very excited for the rest of the season.

“I was so impressed with Alex Hojnar,” Ulmer said. “That was her first match as libero and she was outstanding. She passed almost perfect, the leadership, she was so good and so poised.”

The new-look Huskers got 14 kills from Jazz Sweet, a freshman outside from Kansas who hit .375.

“I think we did a lot of good things and now we have a lot stuff we can look at in practice and on film,” Sweet said. “Just getting on the court and playing with everyone was a lot of fun. I loved it and have been looking forward to it for a couple of months.”

Junior Mikaela Foecke added 13 kills, hit .204 and had 17 digs and got better as the match went on. Redshirt-freshman setter Hunter Atherton played her first match and had 47 assists, six digs and three blocks.

Nebraska went 31-3 last season, losing to Texas in the national-championship match. Not only are the stars gone, but assistant coaches Dani Busboom Kelly (Louisville) and Chris Tamas (Illinois) left to become head coaches, replaced by former Nebraska great and Olympic libero Kayla Banwarth and Tyler Hildebrand.

“It was really weird before the match, but once the match got going we just wanted to play well,” said Cook, whose team plays Florida on Saturday. “We’ll learn a lot from this and it’s good for us to be in this. This is a team that can really grow.”

Foecke agreed.

“I think it’s kind of exciting, actually, just knowing that on our team we have five freshman and a transfer and two redshirt-freshman and it’s kind of a like a growing year, “ Foecke said. “This gives us such a great opportunity to grow. We have an opportunity to be great. I think as the season progresses we’ll continue to get better and better and hopefully peak at the right time.”

That’s a long way off. In the meantime, all four teams are it again Saturday, but Oregon planned to enjoy the moment. It was the program’s first victory over a top-five team in five years.

“It didn’t disappoint, let’s put it that way,” Ulmer said with a big smile. “It might be something we remember for a while. “

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