Bears turn inward after crushing losses

Volleyball vs. Colorado
Eugene W. Lau/File

Coming off its first two losses of the season, the No. 4 Cal volleyball team added another layer of training this week — and another coach.

In addition to honing their technical skills, the Bears are focusing on their psychological approach to the game with the help of mental training coach Jeff Troesch.

Troesch, a highly regarded expert brought in by the athletic department, has worked with the squad a few times this season and last spring. While head coach Rich Feller assures Troesch’s fall visits were scheduled a few weeks ago, the timing could not have been more perfect as Cal (13-2, 3-2 in the Pac-12) looks to recover from resounding defeats to now-No. 2 UCLA and No. 5 USC.

“Last weekend we were pretty much everywhere mentally,” middle hitter Kat Brown said. “We hadn’t really been in situations like that before where it felt like nothing we were doing was really enough.

“That can just lead to everyone just focusing on themselves and not really communicating with everyone else, and that’s part of trust.”

Troesch has been running team meetings and exercises to build that trust as the Bears prepare to take on Arizona (10-3, 2-2) on Friday at 7 p.m., and Arizona State (4-9, 0-4) on Saturday night at Haas Pavilion.

Elements such as trust and communication are pivotal in facets of the game such as passing and blocking, two areas in which Cal struggled mightily last weekend in Los Angeles. Such defensive woes led to an anemic attack and disrupted the flow of the game.

“We weren’t going on as many runs as we had been previously,” defensive specialist Erin Freeman said. “We were looking at too much of a big picture instead of this play, this pass, this point. And that’s what we’re doing this week — we’re really focusing on this play.”

This mentality was evidenced in Wednesday’s practice, during which the team appeared to have heightened concentration and superior skill demonstration.

Outside hitters Tarah Murrey and Christina Higgins exploited defensive gaps, ripping balls down the line and crosscourt with extra vengeance. Laying down such thunderous kills is a testament to their strength, but also to signals better blocking, passing and setting that put them in such a position.

Feller routinely says serving and passing are critical to Cal’s overall success, but the squad is placing even more emphasis on its first contact with the ball on each point to maximize offensive opportunities.

While they are working on bettering their own play, the Bears haven’t forgotten who their opponent is.

“We spent the time dissecting ourselves,” Feller said. “Now we’re going to move forward.”

Both squads challenged Cal last season: Arizona forced the Bears to win in Tucson in five frames, while Arizona State shocked the Bears, 3-2, to spoil Cal’s bid for an outright Pac-10 championship.

The Wildcats stand just on the outside of the coaches’ poll of top 25 teams with an even conference record, while the Sun Devils have yet to win a Pac-12 match despite some close games.

“They’re like every team in the Pac-12 — they can beat anybody at anytime,” Feller said. “Their records don’t indicate greatness, but that really doesn’t matter. Our record may indicate false greatness, who knows?”