No. 1 Bears head to L.A. for first Pac-12 trip

The Bears, who sit atop the Pac-12 standings, are leading the conference in hitting percentage.
Eugene W. Lau/Staff
The Bears, who sit atop the Pac-12 standings, are leading the conference in hitting percentage.

Memories of the Galen Center on the USC campus are particularly vivid for some members of the Cal volleyball team.

“We had match point,” junior Correy Johnson said. “And we lost it ourselves. We had a hitting error into the net on match point.”

The Trojans handed the Bears their first loss of last year’s season in excruciating fashion. After dropping the first two sets in Los Angeles, Cal stormed back to force a fifth frame only to fall in extra points.

On Friday at 7 p.m., the No. 1 Bears (13-0, 3-0 in the Pac-12) again take their spotless record to Los Angeles where No. 12 USC (7-3, 2-1) will look to pull the upset on its home court. Cal will then travel to the John Wooden Center to take on No. 7 UCLA on Saturday at 7 p.m.

The Trojans’ memories of their last match in the Galen Center aren’t so fond, either. On Sept. 9 in front of a record-breaking crowd and a television audience, the then-No. 8 Bruins embarrassed host USC, 25-19, 25-17, 25-17.

Coach Mike Haley’s squad gallops home, however, with an incredible amount of momentum. After losing to UCLA, the Trojans trounced No. 4 Washington in straight sets. The victory marked the Huskies’ first loss of the year, and the first time USC won in Seattle since 2003.

“(USC is) a very good team that’s capable of beating anyone in the country,” coach Rich Feller said. “They hit a bump, but they responded and they came right back.”

Feller’s squad has yet to suffer such a setback, but the Bears aren’t as battle-tested as the Trojans. Cal beat then-No. 2 Stanford, but hasn’t played any other ranked teams. This match-up marks the Bears’ first real test on the road.

“We may hit some bumps and how we respond is the mark of how good we’re going to be,” Feller said.

USC is clearly quite good, not only in its ability to rebound but simply in its talent.

The Trojans return three All-Americans: outside hitter Alex Jupiter, setter Kendall Bateman and middle hitter Lauren Williams. Not only will the Bears have to contain them, but also attackers Sara Shaw and Katie Fuller, who had career nights at Washington.

Cal will look to dislodge the Trojan attack primarily through aggressive serving. Assistant coach Sam Crosson has been working with the squad on floating serves that make defenders move to get the ball, which tends to minimize the setter’s offensive options.

“It makes teams much more predictable if we’re able to get them out of system and not be able to set the middles,” Johnson said. “It makes it easier on our block and defense.”

The Bears’ defense hasn’t struggled thus far — opponents are averaging a meager .094 hitting percentage against Cal, which is the lowest mark in the Pac-12. Meanwhile, Barrett has guided her offense to a conference-best .312 rate, while the Trojans sit at third with a .283 attack rate.

While the Bears may have a statistical edge, there is no way to quantify the Trojans’ momentum or home court advantage that Cal will need to overcome to emerge victorious.