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At Long Last, Volleyball Returns

Jan 21, 2021

Match Notes - Washington State

Through skill workouts in the fall into the start of full practices this month, and as the opening match of the 2020-21 season Friday approaches, one thing has remained constant for UO volleyball coach Matt Ulmer.

All of this time, the Ducks' fourth-year head coach has yet to actually see any of his players' faces. Such is life when trying to practice and play during a pandemic, which will see Oregon's players and staff wearing face coverings even when they take the floor Friday at Washington State (1 p.m., Pac-12 Network).

"I'm getting really good at eye and eyebrow recognition, and (reading) how body language is going," Ulmer said this week.

The volleyball season was moved from fall to winter due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which also cut short the Ducks' beach season last spring after just eight matches. When Oregon takes the court Friday against the Cougars, it will be the program's first match since Nov. 29, 2019, a win over Oregon State that closed out a season in which the Ducks saw an eight-year streak of postseason participation end.

The Ducks and Beavers reunited this past Sunday for a scrimmage, the closest thing to real volleyball Oregon had played in more than 13 months. Though the program was allowed to conduct workouts in the fall, pandemic protocols limited the acceptable activities; the Ducks couldn't practice in full six-on-six scrimmage situations, nor drill close-contact scenarios at the net like hitting against a block.

All of that changed last week, and now the Ducks look forward to opening their season Friday.

"Just to be able to play, play with the whole group together in the same gym, to be together, all those things are just really exciting," Ulmer said.

One positive development of the long offseason was the completion of remodeling at Matthew Knight Arena, including expanded office space for Ulmer's program along with the men's and women's basketball teams. The new quarters have provided chances for Ulmer to consult with the basketball staffs about conducting a season under pandemic protocols, as head coach Dana Altman and Kelly Graves have been doing since November.

Ulmer said he's had several conversations with Graves about everything from monitoring student-athlete welfare to protocols while traveling to competitions on the road.

"We're all cheering for each other," Ulmer said. "We just want everybody to be able to play, and for everybody to stay healthy."

Because of the limit on full-scale preseason practices until recently, Ulmer and his staff still have much to learn about their team as Friday's opener approaches. They know junior Brooke Nuneviller is a budding star, and they're thrilled to welcome Taylor Borup back to action for the first time since 2018, after she missed the 2019 season due to injury. Their all-around skill plus the presence of libero Georgia Murphy has Ulmer confident in Oregon's court coverage entering the season.

Murphy was one of 10 freshmen on the Ducks' 2019 roster, youth that at times struggled to string together consistent performances. Ulmer said his staff has watched video from that season with the group, now sophomores, and marveled at their progress from then until now.

"It looked like the game was so fast," Ulmer said. "We just weren't prepared for the competition and the speed of the game. We just look so much more comfortable (now), at ease. Less stressed. More calm."

That assessment will be tested Friday, when the Ducks finally play their long delayed opening match of this season. Ulmer and his staff are ready to make adjustments on the fly as Oregon gets up to speed early in the season, and through potential delays such as the one UO men's basketball experienced last week due to pandemic protocols.

But his message to the team won't lose sight of the big picture.

"So many people have worked so hard to give us this opportunity," Ulmer said. "Just be really grateful, and enjoy every day we get to be together."