At the beginning of the season, thinking a Pac-12 team would reach the Final Four would be a safe assumption.
After all, the preseason coaches’ poll had teams in the premier West Coast conference claiming hold to three of the top six spots, including reigning champion UCLA at No. 1.
But the team that has made it to the Final Four, in position to face No.1 Penn State (33-2, 19-1 Big Ten) on Thursday for a chance at a spot in the national title match, is an unlikely one — Oregon (29-4,16-4).
In a press conference following an Elite Eight win against No. 4 Nebraska, outside hitter Alaina Bergsma talked about her and the Ducks closing in on the ultimate dream of winning a national championship.
“A couple years ago, Oregon wasn’t even in the top half of the [Pac-12],” said Bergsma, this season’s Pac-12 Player of the Year. “So for us, it means a lot being that team that finally got it turned around and proves to the nation that we’re a team to reckoned with.”
Bergsma, being a redshirt senior, has more experience than any of her teammates, having seen the aforementioned years when the Ducks were far from a team to be reckoned with.
In 2010, Oregon did not even qualify for the postseason. Then in the two surrounding years, 2009 and 2011, the Ducks were eliminated in the second and first rounds, respectively.
In last season’s loss to Colorado State in the first round, Bergsma registered a team-high 30 kills; in comparison, the second leading hitter, Liz Brenner, had just 11 kills.
The strategy of “feed the ball to Bergsma” has not changed, and head coach Jim Moore is the first to admit it.
“I said ‘Set her every single ball,’ ” Moore said in reference to Saturday’s win against Nebraska, when Bergsma tallied 23 kills. “We’ve just grown to expect it. We want to distribute the ball and we want to get the ball to everybody … but Liz [Brenner] did not have one of her best nights.”
Bergsma has averaged 4.92 kills per set this season, an astounding number that easily tops every Nittany Lion and every opponent the Lions have faced this season.
Brenner, the Ducks’ second strongest hitter, averages more kills per set (3.89) than the Lions’ leading hitter, Ariel Scott (3.73).
Scott, whose Big Ten Player of the Award came by her performance on defense, as well as offense, addressed the need to contain Bergsma.
“She’s definitely a good enough player to cause an issue,” Scott said. “But we’ve been working a lot on scouting and we think we can get a handle on her.”
Penn State coach Russ Rose was also candid in speaking on how dynamic Bergsma is. Rose referenced an interview earlier this week when longtime Nebraska coach John Cook speculated on whether Bergsma was the best player his Cornhuskers faced this season.
“We had a similar schedule [to Nebraska], so if he said that she’s the best player that they’ve played, then my assumption is … that’s a pretty accurate statement,” Rose said.
The 34th-year coach referenced the last time the two teams met, last August, when the Ducks upset the Lions, 3-1.
Despite the 19-kill performance laid out by Bergsma in the match, Rose hinted that the Ducks’ most important piece of offense comes from a combination of Bergsma and two teammates.
“Last year when we played them here, Brenner killed us, [Katherine] Fischer killed us, those three kids,” Rose said.
In the match, the Oregon trio — who are on the team again this season — tallied 50 of their team’s 62 total kills.
“We outhit them, we outblocked them, we outdug them and we lost the match,” Rose said.