Oregon took its lumps during a two-week, seven-match road trip to the East Coast earlier this month.
The Ducks went 2-5 against mostly top-flight competition and lost all-American right-side hitter Willow Johnson to an ankle injury in their first match of the trip.
Oregon is back home and Johnson appears to be on the mend. The schedule, however, will offer no relief for a team attempting to get back on track.
No. 24 Oregon (4-5) opens Pac-12 play at 5:30 p.m. Thursday against Oregon State (6-5) in Corvallis at Gill Coliseum, then is home for a noon match Sunday against No. 18 Utah (8-3) at Matthew Knight Arena.
The Ducks and Utes are just two of the conference's six ranked teams, along with No. 1 Stanford, No. 8 Washington, No. 21 California and No. 25 USC.
“It didn’t go as we as hoped from a results standpoint,” Oregon coach Matt Ulmer said of the recent road trip that included losses to No. 4 Pittsburgh, No. 5 Penn State and No. 7 Minnesota. “But I thought a lot of lessons were learned and I’m hoping it can carry us through now that we’re into Pac-12 play. We’re ready for it.”
But is Johnson?
The 6-foot-3 senior was off to a great start to her final season, averaging 4.33 kills per set and hitting .581 when she rolled her ankle in the fourth set against Pitt on Sept. 11 and missed the next four matches. She returned to play sparingly and only in the back row against Duke on Sept. 20, a 3-2 loss, and then sat out again the following match against Hofstra, which the Ducks won 3-0.
On Tuesday, Ulmer didn’t declare Johnson out against the Beavers, but didn’t say she’d play, either.
“I think Willow looks pretty good, so I’m hopeful she’ll be back sooner rather than later,” said Ulmer, who later added, “Every day she’s feeling better. We’ll see how she’s jumping, we’ll see how she’s moving laterally. If she’s feeling well and she signs off on it, then we’ll go with her. She’s definitely earned that at this point. But if it doesn’t look good and it doesn’t look stable, then we’re not pulling the trigger.”
Without Johnson, the Ducks leaned on their two most experienced players in senior middle blocker Ronika Stone and sophomore outside hitter Brooke Nuneviller, who are averaging 3.73 and 3.21 kills per set, respectively.
Filling in for Johnson has been freshman outside hitter Morgan Lewis (1.61 kills per set), with freshman outside hitter Taylor Williams (1.69 kills) also getting plenty of playing time.
“When you take her out, she just impacts the game in so many ways for us that it’s hard to fill that with true freshmen,” Ulmer said. “I don’t care how talented they are, they just don’t have the experience. … that’s tough and there’s no way of masking that or coming up with something special, it’s just now we have to go out there and learn lessons the hard way, and we did that.”
Oregon State has had its share of injuries as well this season, as the six projected starters have played just three matches together.
Thursday’s match will be the home-opener for the Beavers, whose last victory against the Ducks came in the final regular-season match of the 2014 season.
Ulmer would feel better about keeping that eight-match win streak alive if he had Johnson on the floor.
“She just impacts the game in so many ways,” Ulmer said. “She’s our best server, she was our best defender at the time and offensively, she’s kind of our go-to to take out all the trash. If we’re out of system and don’t get a good pass we can just throw a ball up to Willow and she does something good with it. Those players are really hard to find.”