Opposites Getting Right With Help From New Assistant
In the spring of 2020, Oregon volleyball coach Matt Ulmer was looking for creative ways to engage his team while they were navigating the early stages of the COVID pandemic.
The team was still meeting together, albeit virtually. For a few of those sessions over Zoom, Ulmer tapped some connections with his former program, Long Beach State. He invited legends of the sport including Misty May-Treanor and Tayyiba Haneef-Park to speak with the Ducks.
Haneef-Park is a two-time Olympic medalist for Team USA, as a hitter on the right side. Oregon's own opposites, Gloria Mutiri and Morgan Lewis, both used the same term to describe themselves in meeting Haneef-Park – "fan-girling."
"I'm a little bit of a volleyball nerd, so I still watch old Olympic Games and stuff in my free time," Mutiri said. "So yeah, I knew who she was. The teams she was on, I could probably tell you where every single player was from, their hometown, things like that."
Mutiri didn't imagine a relationship with Haneef-Park would extend beyond their pandemic Zoom session. Then, an assistant coaching position opened up on Ulmer's staff at Oregon.
"When Matt told us she was one of the options for the job," Lewis said, "we were so excited. Because we were going to benefit so much."
Haneef-Park did end up joining the UO staff in the spring of 2022. Two years after having Mutiri and Lewis "fan-girling" about their Zoom meeting, Haneef-Park is a mentor to Oregon's opposites, who take the floor in Matthew Knight Arena on Friday when the Ducks host Utah at 6 p.m.
Once the Ducks got over their initial excitement about their new coach, Haneef-Park leveled with them about her expectations.
"I'm going to ask them to do some monotonous drills; I'm going to hold them accountable to some things, and it's not going to be easy," she said. "But if they continue to put in the work, it will pay off."
The Ducks have seen the fruits of that work in recent weeks. The team enjoyed a six-match win streak in late September into early October, and three of Mutiri's five double-digit kill performances so far this season came during that stretch – including a 14-kill match against Arizona State in which she hit .700 with no errors.
Lewis played only one set during that span of six matches. But encouraged to keep grinding in practice with Haneef-Park, Lewis kept herself ready. She stepped in to a bigger role over the past two weeks, playing all five sets and recording 11 kills at Washington, and tallying seven at UCLA.
Lewis hit above .300 in both appearances, including .450 against the Huskies.
"She got in the mindset where she just stayed ready, and I commend her for that," Haneef-Park said. "We've talked about her being bigger than her circumstances, and I think that goes both ways for 'Glo' and 'Mo.' Some days we might need faster offense; some days we may need a bigger block. They just have to be ready to come in and make an impact whenever we need them."
Brooke Nuneviller and Mimi Colyer have been the focal point offensively for the Ducks all season. But Oregon's offense goes to another level when Mutiri is as efficient as she was during the late September winning streak. Haneef-Park said they've worked hard on getting Mutiri to be more upright when she's on the attack, rather than leaning away from the ball.
"It's changed my game so much," Mutiri said of working with Haneef-Park. "Just very little things that she's like, 'tweak this,' and we go, wow, this really works."
The improvements for Lewis under Haneef-Park have been mental as much as anything else, staying positive through struggles – including a lack of playing time at points during this season.
"It's definitely been difficult; obviously everyone wants to play," Lewis said. "But it's such a great problem to have, that we have so much depth. I want to play, but if we're winning and I'm not on the court, that's OK. I'll be supportive the whole way."
Ulmer said Oregon's toughest competition at times this season has been in practice, when the starters take on the reserves. For much of this season that latter group included Lewis as well as setter Elisa Ferreira, and the chemistry they've developed paid off the last two weeks.
With setter Hannah Pukis recovering from injury, Ferreira has taken over that spot. She was setting for Lewis at both Washington and UCLA, where the Ducks snapped a brief three-match losing streak by beating the Bruins last weekend.
"Against UCLA I feel like, when I was able to go in, I felt like I did my best to try to be like, all right, let's just take a deep breath – we're OK," Lewis said. "It felt good for me to be able to get in and feel like I was contributing."
The Ducks are about to enter their third weekend since the change at setter, and they feel like they're in rhythm with Ferreira running the offense.
"It's kind of like changing your quarterback --- you've got to get used to a new rhythm and stuff," Mutiri said. "And Tayyiba's also been good with that adjustment, making sure that I'm communicating really well and have an effective connection with (Ferreira) so that it can come together a little quicker."
Two years after "fan-girling" through a meeting with Haneef-Park, Oregon's opposites are thriving under her mentorship.
"We're getting close to the end of the season, and we can still accomplish our goals," Mutiri said. "We've got to really lock-in and make sure that every step of the way from here on is really deliberate. We're ready for that, for sure."