This fall, Oregon State volleyball has the makings of a team that could reach the postseason for the first time in years.
The Beavers, who are 10-4 overall and have won eight of their past 10 matches, are looking to have their most successful season since 2001, the last time OSU made the NCAA tournament and, not coincidently, the last time it had a winning record. Entering Pac-12 Conference play this past Wednesday — Oregon State opened at No. 9 Oregon — the defensive-minded Beavers led the conference with 16.88 digs per game and boasted the fifth-best blocks-per-set average, with 2.85 stuffs per game.
Leading the Beavers’ defense this season is junior libero Becky Defoe, a former three-sport standout at Bend’s Summit High.
Defoe, a rare Pac-12 player who did not play club volleyball in high school, leads the conference in digs per game (5.58) a year after setting single-season Oregon State records for digs (555) and digs-per-set average (4.62) as a sophomore. Earlier this month, Defoe was named the conference’s defensive player of the week after helping the Beavers go 3-0 at the Chicago Classic tournament and score an upset of No. 2-ranked Penn State.
“She’s one of the top defenders in OSU history," veteran Oregon State coach Taras Liskevych says about Defoe. “There’s no doubt she’s in that class already."
Despite not taking up volleyball until the seventh grade — softball was her first love — Defoe is one of the main reasons why the Beavers have improved their win total each of the past two years.
After starting all 32 matches in her freshman season, in which OSU went 9-23 overall, Defoe emerged as one of the best liberos in the conference last year en route to helping the Beavers post a 16-16 overall mark, their first nonlosing season in eight years.
“Our goal is to beat ranked teams," Defoe says about OSU’s 2012 season. “We’ve got a great team that we’ve been building over the years. ... We’ve got a lot of returners from last year that know how to play in that fifth set."
Liskevych, the U.S. national women’s team coach from 1985 to 1996, expects even bigger things out of Defoe this year after the third-year starter spent the summer playing for the U.S. junior national team.
“What she’s done so far is a remarkable achievement, considering she didn’t play club ball when she was young," says Liskevych, who is in his eighth season with OSU. “She’s always been a great athlete. With Becky, it’s been a question of learning the game of volleyball. She’s improved her digging, passing, serving, leadership. ... Every skill she has to handle, she’s improved on.
“She’s gotten better and better every year," Liskevych adds. “The sky’s the limit. ... It depends on what she wants to do, but she’ll have the opportunity to be looked at for the next level."
Winner of nine varsity letters at Summit, Defoe has no regrets about waiting until college to focus on just one sport and argues that her time on the basketball court and softball diamond only made her a better athlete and competitor.
“A lot of people can’t believe I didn’t play club (volleyball)," Defoe says with a laugh. “But I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. Having all the different aspects of the different sports helps out so much playing defense (in volleyball). ... And it kept my interest. As soon as you get out of one sport, you’re ready to go play the next one."
Truth be told, if Defoe had spent her high school offseasons on the club circuit, she probably would not have ended up at Oregon State. Liskevych prides himself on finding athletes off the beaten trail, something he says the Beavers have to do in order to compete in the nation’s toughest volleyball conference.
“We know we’re not going to get into recruiting battles with teams like USC, UCLA, Stanford, and Cal," Liskevych says, listing some of the most notable programs from the Pac-12, which has five teams ranked among the top 10 in the most recent American Volleyball Coaches Association poll, including No. 1 UCLA, No. 2 USC and No. 5 Washington.
“But we know we can train players," Liskevych continues. “The question always becomes, do we have enough time to do it?"
Defoe’s progression over the past 2 1⁄2 seasons — she graduated from high school early and played spring volleyball with the Beavers in 2010 — seems to validate Liskevych’s strategy. If OSU can produce similar results with players from backgrounds like Defoe’s — high-level athletes with little or no club experience — the Beavers could battle for a spot in the top half of the Pac-12 this season and beyond, and in turn compete for regular berths in the NCAA tournament.
“We follow that culture at Oregon State of ‘The Little Engine That Could,’ " Liskevych says about going against better-funded athletic departments located in more high-profile destinations than Corvallis. “It’s what we have to do, and Becky is the epitome of that. She works hard, never quits, and gets better every day.
“She’s the mainstay of our defense and makes everyone around her better," Liskevych adds. “You want kids like her that not only have innate skill, but that great attitude and great work ethic."