Cal slightly modifies recipe for success

All-American Tarah Murrey returns to lead the Bears as the biggest offensive threat.
Shannon Hamilton/Staff
All-American Tarah Murrey returns to lead the Bears as the biggest offensive threat.

Volleyball Season Preview
The Cal volleyball team is coming off its best season in program history. The Bears took their first Pac-10 title, and made their first appearance in the national championship match.

One school of thought would be not to mess with success and simply plug in new players to fill the two vacant positions at setter and defensive specialist in the starting lineup.

Reigning AVCA Coach of the Year Rich Feller is taking a slightly different route. While the overall offensive and defensive schemes will remain in place, Feller said he is mixing things up in the lineup, beginning with tonight’s season opener against UC Riverside.

“I don’t think you’ll see any sweeping changes,” Feller said. “We have a lot more weapons now. Minus Carli (Lloyd), who was the setter, we increased our offensive threats by three or four new players.”

Last season, the starters were solidified very early in the preseason, and didn’t change much throughout the year. This season, even those accomplished starters that were key contributors last year have to fight for their positions.

Most notably, Correy Johnson, who garnered All-Pac 10 and AVCA honorable mention accolades as a right side hitter last season, is duking it out with two of the conference’s top blockers, Shannon Hawari and Kat Brown, for a spot in the middle.

“Mostly, we need one of the middle positions to be able to hit behind the setter exceptionally well,” Feller said. “Correy does that better than anyone. We may continue to bounce her between middle and right side.”

If Johnson does not win a spot as middle blocker, she’ll battle highly regarded freshman Christina Higgins for a position on the right side.

As Feller experiments with different rotations, the setter position will foreseeably be locked down.

After two years as Lloyd’s understudy, Elly Barrett will take the helm. The untested junior has some huge shoes to fill — Lloyd earned National Player of the Year honors last year — but benefits from two years of experience setting the B-team.

Barrett will be surrounded by powerful attackers to help her ease into the role. All-American Tarah Murrey returns as the lone senior on the team coming off a breakout junior campaign in which she emerged as one of the country’s top outside hitters. Murrey will step into Lloyd’s role as the vocal leader in addition to the strongest offensive threat.

While Murrey will certainly be heard, she notes that the team has a more reserved temperament this year.

“Me and Carli last year, we could get a little rowdy,” Murrey said. “But I think that once we get more comfortable with each other, all of our true personalities are going to come out and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

The ability to keep energy up down the stretch will be crucial, as the Bears face a stacked conference slate that includes three other teams ranked in the top-10 nationally.

After a weak preseason, Cal will have to be on top of its game to host perennial power No. 6 Stanford to open conference play on Sept. 13. The addition of Colorado and Utah extend the Pac-12 season by four matches, forcing the first leg of the Big Spike to take place on a Tuesday night.

No. 2 USC, picked to win the Pac-12, will pose the greatest challenge for the Bears, who are predicted to finish second. The Trojans return all of their starters from the team that lost to Cal in the Final Four, but defeated the Bears twice in the regular season.

Cal’s not quite ready to face the likes to Stanford and USC yet, but are putting the work in to get to that point.

“We played some hard volleyball in practice, so conditioning-wise we’re right there,” Murrey said. “Mentally, we’re getting ready every single day.”

“We’re ready to play.”