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More Experienced Ducks Return To Postseason

Dec 1, 2021

It was less than eight months ago that Oregon volleyball was eliminated from last season's NCAA Tournament, and the memory is burned into the Ducks' psyche not only because it took place during this calendar year.

The 2020 tournament, played in April of this year due to the pandemic, saw Oregon return to the postseason for the first time since the fall of 2018. The roster had scant postseason experience, and that showed in a Sweet Sixteen loss to Purdue – the Ducks were slow to start, losing the first two sets, and then failed to finish after rallying to win the third and having a late lead in the fourth.

On Thursday, the UO volleyball team finally gets a chance to rectify that, when the Ducks open the 2021 NCAA Tournament with a first-round match against Kansas (2:30 p.m. PT, ESPN+) in a quadrant of the bracket hosted by Creighton.

"As soon as we finished that Purdue match," UO coach Matt Ulmer said, "we talked about doing better handling that (postseason pressure). Here we are this time around with this opportunity, to see if we grew. We're looking forward to that challenge."

When the Ducks took the court for the tournament this spring, only two players on the roster were veterans of the program's previous postseason appearance in 2018. One was Taylor Borup, and the other was Brooke Nuneviller – a libero on the 2018 team who is now a star outside hitter for the Ducks.

It's a different story now, with every player who appeared in the loss to Purdue back for another postseason appearance this week.

"We know what to expect," Nuneviller said. "Everyone's fighting for their lives out there. So I'm really excited."

Adding to Oregon's excitement is the potential to take the court Thursday about as healthy as the roster has been all season.

Nuneviller dealt with an ankle injury early in the season, and only lately has felt as confident and explosive as she'd like. Borup returned from injury just in time for a Senior Day win over Arizona last week, and though setter Kylie Robinson wasn't available for the regular-season finale at Oregon State, the Ducks hope she can play in the postseason.

"Our energy looked good; we were jumping well and moving well this past week," Ulmer said. "When you get to this point, you just get energized."

The Ducks will experience some familiarity this week. By coincidence, they're headed back to Omaha, Neb., to play in the tournament for the second time this year – the 2020 NCAA Tournament was played in a "bubble" there this spring, and now Creighton is hosting Oregon's pod this weekend to kick off the 2021 tournament. And the fourth team in the pod, along with Oregon, Creighton and Kansas, is Ole Miss – whose coaching staff includes former UO setter Maggie Scott.

But Oregon also will be on some unfamiliar territory. The Ducks played in the 2018 tournament as the No. 15 seed, and after missing the 2019 tournament they were the No. 10 overall seed last season.

This time around, Oregon enters the postseason unseeded.

"It's really exciting to kind of be the underdog going into the tournament," Nuneviller said. "This team is filled with so much potential, so much talent. I kind of like being in the underdog position."

Being unseeded means being away from the comforts of home to open the tournament. And it means, if the Ducks can get past the Jayhawks in the first round, potentially having to upset No. 14 Creighton (30-3) on Friday for the chance to play in a second straight Sweet Sixteen.

"If you're not hosting, you know you're going to play really good teams on the road," Ulmer said. "So it's about us, and can we play our best volleyball."