Drukarev: Volleyball must endure season-defining stretch

Posted by Andy Drukarev on Thursday, Sep. 29 at 3:36 pm.

A few weeks back, the folks at ESPN thought and thought — and thought some more — about a catchphrase to describe the upcoming weekend of football action. With several top-10 teams playing on the road against strong opponents, the Worldwide Leader decided Sept. 17, 2011, would be known to the world as “Road Test Weekend.”

If that slate of games merited the “Road Test Weekend” label, then the next three weeks of the Oregon volleyball team’s season ought to be termed “Super-Duper-Hard-AP-Test Stretch.” Or something to that effect.

The No. 15 Ducks, who have won their last 10 matches, nine by way of shutout, are one of the hottest teams in the nation. They’re 11-1 on the season and 4-0 in the Pac-12, which marks Oregon’s best conference start in 24 years.

Admittedly, the competition has been less than stellar. Aside from Penn State and Minnesota, Oregon didn’t face any real challenges in the nonconference portion of their schedule. Additionally, the Ducks’ conference games so far have come against four of the six weakest teams in the conference. Oregon well might be an elite team — we just don’t know yet.

We will soon, however. In the next three weeks, Oregon will face five of the nation’s top six teams: No. 2 UCLA, No. 3 Washington, No. 4 California, No. 5 USC and No. 6 Stanford.

The grueling stretch begins this weekend, when the Ducks head north to Washington. On Friday, they play No. 3 Washington, which has lost one game all year. The Huskies rebounded from their sole defeat with sweeps over No. 2 UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State.

The next night, Oregon visits the hopping metropolis of Pullman, Wash., where they will be a heavy favorite. Though Washington State does claim one of the conference’s best players in Megan Ganzer, it also has a first-year coach, little depth and a poor resume. At 9-5, the Cougars have suffered losses to unranked teams like Eastern Washington, Texas A&M and Arizona.

The real fun starts the following weekend, when the Ducks begin a stretch where they will face four of the top six teams in the nation in eight days.

First up, on Oct. 7, is No. 6 Stanford, the second-”worst” of Oregon’s opponents in the next three weeks. Though the Cardinal may have lost stars Alix Klineman and Cassidy Lichtman to graduation, it is still loaded with talent.

The following evening, the Ducks take on No. 4 California. The Bears reached last season’s NCAA championship game and return outside hitter Tarah Murrey. They went unblemished through their nonconference schedule and defeated rival Stanford before succumbing to the Southern California schools. Last season, Oregon lost all six of the sets it played against Cal.

On paper, the final two games of the three-week stretch are Oregon’s most challenging. On Friday, Oct. 14, the Ducks face USC, which returns star Alex Jupiter and several other top players from a team that went 2-0 against Oregon last season.

The Ducks conclude the six games with a visit to No. 2 UCLA, which already has wins over California and Stanford this season.

This is an insanely difficult, season-defining 21 days of volleyball for the Ducks. It would be easy to claim Oregon needs to win two of the six, maybe three of the six, to pass the midseason test. Personally, I don’t think there’s any need to set an arbitrary win limit.

Truth is, with a favorable remaining schedule, the Ducks could lose all six and still have an excellent shot at qualifying for the NCAA tournament.

What’s more important is that Oregon survives the stretch with its confidence intact and an optimistic outlook. Though the Ducks haven’t proven themselves among the elite teams in the conference, they have proven themselves more than capable of handling most teams in America, and that should serve them fine as they play out the remainder of their schedule. If they’re able to view whatever success — or failure — they encounter in the next three weeks as a learning experience, that will help them grow. I have no doubt Oregon will qualify for, and maybe even make noise in, the NCAA Tournament.

If not, and Oregon gets overwhelmed by the stiff competition and starts to doubt itself, it could be another disappointing season for the Ducks.