Bears open season against barren Riverside

Eight months after dropping the NCAA championship match to Penn State last December, the No. 3 Cal volleyball team will see its first action of the 2011 season this weekend.

The Bears will host the Cal Molten Classic today and Saturday at Haas Pavillion, inviting UC Riverside, Fairfield and Florida International University into Berkeley.

Cal will be looking to repeat its performance from 2010, when it won both of its matches of the preseason tournament, tallying victories over UC Santa Barbara (25-18, 25-15, 28-26) and Manhattan College (25-8, 25-15, 25-7). Outside hitter Tarah Murrey, who returns to the Bears as the lone senior, was named the tournament’s most valuable player after leading the team with 11 kills and 14 digs. The Bears’ offense was solid, logging a .341 attack percentage across the two games.

Cal should be poised to see similar results tonight when it opens its season against UC Riverside at 5 p.m. The Highlanders had little to celebrate in 2010, posting a 2-30 record, including a 0-16 mark in the Big West. Riverside was picked to finish last in the Big West in 2011.

“It sounds demeaning to say tune-up, but I would say these games are more of a way to get momentum going for our team,” coach Rich Feller said. “The three weeks of preseason are meant to establish some sort of lineup and momentum.”

Though the Bears might be pushed a little more on Saturday when they square off with Fairfield at 11 a.m. and FIU at 7 p.m., Cal likely won’t see any serious competition. Still, the squad knows it needs to get off to a quick start to the season.

“You play every game likes it’s the national title,” Murrey said. “You’re never going to play perfect volleyball, but you always have to respect your opponent.”

The Bears will also be using this weekend, as well as the matches in the upcoming weeks, to solidify its starting lineup. Though the team returns six starters from 2010, it will need to find a way to replace the presence of Carli Lloyd, the AVCA National Player of the Year in 2010. Lloyd finished her career with 5,697 assists — good enough for second all time in Cal history.

“We’ll use the games to find out which starting lineups will work the best, and some of those may include the younger players,” Feller said. “If there’s an opportunity to play more people, this is the chance to do it.”

Junior setter Elly Barrett will be the one to pick up where Lloyd left off. In 2010, Barrett logged only 27 sets through 13 games of work behind Lloyd, and will look to establish herself as a leader of the 2011 version of the Bears.

“It will be good practice to stay focused on our side of the court regardless of who’s on the other side,” Barrett said.