The Oregon volleyball team broke up into three different groups of players, coaches and support staff for three different flights to Detroit early Tuesday morning.
It was just the start of a long day of travel to Ann Arbor, Mich., for the Ducks, who will play Miami (Ohio) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at 2:30 p.m. Thursday at Crisler Arena.
Oregon coach Jim Moore was not a fan of the convoluted travel plan, hastily put together soon after the Ducks received their at-large berth into the tournament Sunday night, but he is certainly embracing life on the road.
“When you’re home, there’s more distractions,” Moore said. “I don’t like it from an academic standpoint. As you get closer to finals that’s the frustrating piece that I don’t like. But from a distractions piece, I think maybe it’s the best thing we could do.”
The Ducks (20-9) are in the postseason for the sixth straight season and for the 10th time in the past 11 years. A big reason has been Oregon’s ability to win away from Matthew Knight Arena this season. The Ducks were 9-2 in away matches and their best win of the season came against No. 8 Washington in Seattle. Two days after that sweep of the Huskies, Oregon beat No. 25 Washington State in Pullman.
“I guess you can say that we don’t have any fear,” senior libero Amanda Benson said. “All that pressure really goes away when you get to travel. We’re excited.”
In Oregon’s 10 tournament appearances under Moore, the Ducks have lost in the first round only three times, including to Hawaii the first season they made it in 2006, and last season to Wisconsin. In between they also made it out of the first weekend four times, including when they played for the national title in 2012.
However, to get to the Sweet 16 for a fifth time, Oregon will have to do something it hasn’t done in nearly a month —win back-to-back matches.
After their successful swing through the state of Washington, the Ducks went 3-3 the rest of the season and didn’t win consecutive matches during that stretch.
“I think we were a little bit better in the beginning of the year compared to the end of the year,” Benson said. “But we talked a lot about consistency. If we’re going to get to where we want to go we’re going to have to be consistent.”
Sophomore outside hitter Lindsey Vander Weide said Oregon is more confident heading into the postseason this year than it was in 2015 when a first-round match in Madison against the sixth-seeded Badgers was too daunting a task to overcome for the 16-13 Ducks.
“Last year we knew it was going to be really tough to play away, obviously, and that was a really hard matchup and we did not set ourselves up well,” said Vander Weide, who leads Oregon with 3.24 kills per set. “I think this year our spirits are a little higher because we definitely have ourselves in a better position.”
The other match at Crisler Arena on Thursday pits No. 12-seeded Michigan (22-10) against Patriot League champion American (27-7).
The winners will play at 4:30 p.m. Friday.
To get to the second round, the Ducks will have to beat a Redhawks (24-6) team that won 23 of their final 25 matches and has five players averaging between 2.33 and 2.71 kills per set.
“You have to be very disciplined, and we gotta attack,” said Moore when asked for the best approach to playing Miami’s balanced offense. “You have to be very aggressive serving.”
The Redhawks, playing in the tournament for the first time since 2008, will have their hands full as well. Oregon’s offense led the Pac-12 in kills per set (14.32) and assists per set (13.55) and was tied with Stanford with a league-leading .275 hitting percentage.
Besides Vander Weide, the Ducks have three freshmen in the top five in kills per set — outside hitter Jolie Rasmussen (3.10), middle blocker Ronika Stone (2.94) and right-side hitter Willow Johnson (2.18). Junior outside hitter Taylor Agost averages 2.87.
Another freshman, Brooke Van Sickle, has played in 103 of Oregon’s 109 sets at multiple positions.
“The freshman class, I’ve never had anything like this,” said Moore, adding that what the Ducks lack in experience is made up with a youthful exuberance that helps keep the team loose. “When our name popped up, they were genuinely excited. That’s the cool part, They were giddy and running around.
“Everyone’s been in (the tournament) except for those four freshmen, so we have enough experience, but it’s just nice to have people who go ‘Yay, we get to keep playing!’”
But for how long depends on how well the Ducks perform.
“It feels like a whole new season and you get to forget everything that happened in conference, it gets to be wiped away,” Benson said.
“I kind of love the tournament just because, I always say it’s eat or be eaten. It’s one and done and you just need to survive.”
Follow Chris on Twitter @chansen_RG . Email firstname.lastname@example.org .