On Sports

by: COURTESY OF GEOFF THURNER - Liz Brenner (middle) celebrates with teammates Alaina Bergsma (left) and Haley Jacob as the Oregon Ducks win a point en route to the NCAA volleyball championship match in 2012.The state’s finest multi-sport college athlete in memory played her heart out Sunday at Gill Coliseum.

Yes, HER heart.

There have been a few good ones over the years — Anna Maria Lopez and Jordan Kent come to mind — but none as well-rounded or covering as many sports as Liz Brenner.

The 6-1 sophomore had nine points, seven rebounds and a major floor burn from a hard tumble in Oregon’s 68-49 Civil War loss to Oregon State.

It has been a rough year for the UO women cagers, 2-16 overall and 0-6 in Pac-12 play. Imagine where the Ducks would be without Brenner.

It’s natural to wonder how Brenner would fare if she focused solely on basketball. Or volleyball. Or softball. Or track and field.

The former Jesuit High standout has played the three former sports at Oregon and will try the latter for the first time this spring.

I forgot to ask Brenner if there is any sport she can’t do well, but basketball coach Paul Westhead answered for her.

“She’s such a highly gifted athlete,” Westhead said. “It’s like, you want me to play tennis, golf, racquetball? She can do any of them.”

Brenner is too modest to comfortably answer the question, anyway. She lets her performance speak for


This fall, she was a second-team All-American for the Oregon volleyball team that made it to the NCAA championship game. Last winter, after joining the basketball team late, she averaged 5.8 points and 5.8 rebounds as a part-time starter. This winter, again coming on late, she carries averages of 8.8 points and 6.7 rebounds in seven games with the Ducks.

Last spring, joining the softball team well into the season, she drew three walks and scored two runs in 10 plate appearances with the UO softball team that reached the College World Series. After redshirting in track and field last spring, she will throw the shot and javelin this spring.

Is it any wonder Brenner — who somehow finds time to maintain a 3.4 grade-point average — has been nominated for the James E. Sullivan Award, which goes to the nation’s top amateur athlete based on athletic accomplishments, leadership, character and sportsmanship?

“It’s pretty crazy,” says older sister Mary Claire Brenner, a four-year letter-winner in softball at Oregon State who will try track and field for the first time this spring. “Elizabeth is unlike any athlete I know, the way she can do them all in one year.

“For me, it’s just track now. I know with the commitment needed for softball, no way I could have done more than one sport, kept up my grades and stayed healthy. It’s amazing.”

Volleyball coach Jim Moore has his theory.

“It’s her makeup,” he says. “She has it mentally and emotionally. I look at it as more emotional, because that’s how people feel. Even though she is incredibly hard on herself, that’s how she survives.

“She has had so much success in her life, she figures out how to make things happen. It’s a mental thing that she’s able to overcome. That’s where she gets her strength.”

Brenner sees it as nothing too complicated.

“When people ask me, ‘What sport do you play?’ I kind of rattle them off and they say, ‘Are you serious?’ ” she says with a laugh. “It just seems normal to me, because I did it all through high school. I’ve played multiple sports my whole life.”

Indeed, she did it all at Jesuit. Brenner was a two-time Class 6A volleyball player of the year, leading the Crusaders to a state title as sophomore and a runner-up finish her last two seasons. In basketball, she was 6A player of year as she led them to a state title in her senior season. In track, she won a state title in the shot put and was second in javelin as a junior and was second at state in the shot as a senior. She played softball as a freshman and sophomore before switching to track her junior year.

Volleyball was her favorite, and Brenner accepted a scholarship while letting Moore know that she’d like to play other sports at Oregon.

“But every basketball coach told me, ‘There’s no way basketball would work. You’d miss too much with volleyball,’ ” she says. “So I was thinking more of playing volleyball and softball, or volleyball and track.”

After a successful freshman season in volleyball, she was home for Christmas break for a week when she received a call from Westhead. The Ducks had lost two post players to injury.

“They needed some reinforcements and knew I could play basketball,” Brenner says. “I showed up at practice the next morning at 9 a.m. I was pretty excited about it. It was cool. Basketball is a lot of fun.”

After basketball ended, she was home on spring break when she received a call from softball coach Mike White, who, wonders never cease, had lost a catcher to a knee injury. Brenner plays catcher and first base.

“They didn’t have anyone else,” she says. “That was a really cool opportunity for me. I played in the super regional and got to go to the World Series, where we finished fourth. It was a great experience.”

White, it turns out, knew Brenner from her time playing for the Oregon Blazers ASA team out of Beaverton. He recruited her as a sophomore.

“I asked Jim if I could approach Liz,” White says. “Her commitments were already heavy with volleyball and basketball and I didn’t want to overtax her. She agreed to come on and help us out.

“The thing about Liz is she’s a five-tool player in softball. She hits with power and for average, has a strong arm, runs well and has a good glove.”

Moore initially had misgivings about Brenner playing even two sports.

“I was mostly concerned with keeping her mental health,” he says. “As a freshman, she was one of our best passers and serve receivers. I didn’t let her play in the back row — where you have to serve, receive serve and play defense — because she is so hard on herself.

“I thought it would be too much for her. You can say she proved me wrong. The reality is, I don’t know if you could ever give her too much. She’s an amazing kid when it comes to those things.”

Does Brenner ever feel playing all the sports is too much?

“Some days it is,” she says. “I’ll have practices in two sports and classes sometimes, but my coaches are pretty understanding. They know I have a lot going on.”

Physically, is it ever too taxing?

“It’s not that bad,” she says. “When I switch from season to season, I use different muscles. It gets me more excited for that season, because I haven’t been doing it all year.”

And mentally, is it ever too much of a burden?

“Not really,” she says with a smile. “I’m good to go.”

Basketball may be the most difficult transition, particularly when the Oregon volleyball season extends to the NCAA championship game. She joined the UO basketball program this season on Dec. 26 — more than two months after her teammates began preseason practice. In her third game back, she moved into the starting lineup and is arguably the Ducks’ most consistent post player.

“She’s doing a terrific job,” Westhead says. “I mean, she hadn’t picked up a basketball since last March. Getting familiar with the dribble/pass/shoot thing and the game’s up-and-down movement takes awhile. It’s clearly a different movement than you do in volleyball.

“There’s an adjustment, but the good news is, she’s quick to adjust. Once she gets at either end of the court, she’s not confused. Confusion is not in her vocabulary.”

Westhead coached one of the top female players in the world, Diana Taurasi, with the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA.

“Liz is not as multi-faceted and basketball-talented as Diana, but she plays and reacts at that high level,” he says. “As a pure athlete, she ranks very high with all the females I’ve coached.”

As a freshman in volleyball, Brenner hit .241 with 2.96 kills per set. This season, she improved those numbers to .291 and 3.94.

“Those are first-team All-America numbers,” Moore says. “That’s the definition of a great outside hitter. I don’t want to say she surprised me, but she’s maybe better than even I thought she could be.”

Her coaches appreciate her contributions as a team member almost as much as her on-court performance.

“She is such a great athlete, she could have been a problem if she didn’t play,” White says. “Liz wasn’t. The players loved having her on the squad. Even though she didn’t know other players as well, she contributed in the dugout and in the clubhouse.

“She’s a great person. a great teammate. Always positive, a smile on her face, working hard. She is a competitor. Even if she has a quiet demeanor, she’s going to knock you out. She plays to have fun and to win. She’s a wonderful, interesting kid.”

Westhead’s description of her begins with “very intriguing.”

“Liz Brenner, no matter what happens or what she’s doing, there’s always this smile on her face,” he says. “You pick up that smile in about 12 seconds.

“You would think she’s 14 years old and just came from a Brownie or Girl Scout meeting and had fun with her girlfriends. She’s a delightful kid. It’s not like there’s this aura of greatness about her. She’s just happy she’s here.”

Some of that is a family trait. The Brenners’ other sibling, Doug, is a Jesuit senior and a four-star offensive tackle who has committed to Oregon. Father Doug — who works for Portland Parks & Recreation — and mother Jennifer were college swimmers. The Brenner offspring were all club-level swimmers through eighth grade.

“We’re all a pretty happy family, always smiling,” Mary Claire says. “Elizabeth just loves competing and being in the games so much. No matter how tired or out of it she feels, she’s going to push through and do what’s best for the team. She likes being involved and meeting new people.”

The obvious question is how good Brenner could be if she specialized in one sport.

“If she’d stick with softball, she’d be one of the elite players,” White says. “But I told her at the time she joined us last year, I understood it was a one-time shot. She’s getting pressure from three sports. Her No. 1 love is volleyball.

“I promised her I wouldn’t bother her anymore. If she wants to play again, the door is open.”

Westhead says he understands Brenner is not going to be a full-time basketball player at Oregon.

“If she played basketball 11 1/2 months of a year like most of our kids, maybe she could be significantly better, but not necessarily,” he says. “She is such a good athlete, give her two weeks and maybe she’s maxed out to where she’s going to be.”

Moore says he is asked often by colleagues how good Brenner could be if she played only volleyball.

“But as coaches, we have to be careful,” he says. “She enjoys what she’s doing. Our strength and conditioning staff has to be smart enough to not do crazy things to over-exert her.

“As long as we’re not killing the kid ... that’s what she loves to do. She can do it all, and maybe it makes her better at everything.”

Brenner smiles when posed the question.

Moore “wanted me to just play volleyball and see how good I could get played on that for an entire year,” she says, “but I don’t really have a plan to do that any time soon.”

Once she graduates, Brenner envisions playing professional volleyball overseas, “and I’ll see where that takes me,” she says.

There are a lot of games to be played and competitions to be waged for the Ducks before then, of course. The Legend of Liz, I’m betting, is just getting started.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Twitter: @kerryeggers

Contract Publishing

Go to top