I admit it — I was wrong.
I was convinced that the Cal volleyball team was going to lose to Stanford on Tuesday night.
The coaches’ poll may have indicated otherwise, with Cal sitting atop the country and Stanford just a notch below at No. 2.
That fact alone was enough to make me think that the Bears would fall. Cal athletic teams don’t have the best track record of showing up when they’re projected to be the favorites.
Stanford was soundly battle tested, entering the match on the heels of beating defending national champion Penn State as well as then-No. 7 Florida. Meanwhile, Cal had playing all unranked squads in the preseason and not always completely steamrolling them.
But really, my skepticism was rooted in the discrepancy I saw in the Bears’ performance during last year’s run to the championship match and thus far this season.
I was along for the ride as the volleyball beat writer last year, even traveling to Seattle for the regional semifinals and final. With every match, with every touch, I became a bigger believer, as much as that went against my nature as a Bay Area sports fan. Time and time again, I watched the Bears just refuse to lose.
I was convinced that the team’s never say die attitude was due predominantly to its fearless leader, Carli Lloyd.
The reigning National Player of the Year is one of the most intense and dynamic athletes I’ve ever seen. She has incredibly high energy all the time and a very vocal presence on a team, and she could do it all – serve, pass, block, and of course, set.
And given her position as the setter running the offense, she was involved in every play, making that energy even more contagious.
Sure, even under Lloyd’s direction, the team would have its lulls and play down to its competition at times, but that only came back to bite them once in an embarrassing loss to Arizona State. In seemingly every other instance, they were able to regroup and dominate (two losses to elite USC being the other exceptions).
Cal’s very high level of energy and focus at times seemed to matter more than the amount of experience or talent on its side of the net.
This year, with a very mild-mannered player in Elly Barrett stepping into Lloyd’s role, I thought the team would lack the kind of intense energy that Lloyd’s squad demonstrated pretty consistently and really ratcheted up during big moments.
Until Tuesday night, that intuition had been mostly correct. The chatter on the court had declined. While they never played terribly, Cal didn’t look like the insatiable team of last year that was firing on all cylinders.
True, it was the preseason, and they shouldn’t have peaked that early. But even compared to the level of play during this time last year, the 2011 squad didn’t seem to quite measure up, at least in my memory of it.
But during Tuesday’s absolute domination of Stanford, I wasn’t thinking about the void Lloyd left. The Bears were doing what they had done last season against Stanford at Haas Pavilion — losing the first set and coming back to completely overpower the Cardinal.
The scores were close and Stanford even led for long stretches of time, but it never felt like Cal was losing. John Dunning’s club never really got any swing in momentum.
The Bears just never gave up, never said die. Just the way Lloyd did during her highly acclaimed 2010 season.
Perhaps it’s Lloyd’s legacy. But maybe it was never just her leading the way. Maybe her teammates played a bigger role in building that culture than I realized.
With that same energy, even more firepower and a deeper bench, just maybe the Bears can take one more step and finally topple Penn State.
And maybe I won’t be wrong.