No. 4 Bears play as underdogs for first time against No. 2 Huskies

Last season, the Cal volleyball team acted as a perennial underdog.

This weekend, the Bears will get their first opportunity this year to remember what that felt like.

No. 4 Cal returns home this weekend to face off with No. 2 Washington at 7 p.m. on Friday night at Haas Pavilion and Washington State on Saturday.

For the Bears (17-2, 7-2 in the Pac-12), Friday’s matchup with the Huskies will be the first in 2011 against a higher ranked opponent. Washington (15-1, 7-1) comes in a half game ahead of Cal in the Pac-12 standings and has only dropped four sets on the season, including a 3-0 loss to then No. 13 USC on Sept. 16.

“It’s great to finally be the underdog again,” coach Rich Feller said. “It gives us a chance to play the way we play and try to knock off a favored team.”

In facing the Huskies, Cal will see one of the stingiest defenses in the nation at work. Behind middle blockers Bianca Rowland and Lauren Barfield — who rank second and third in the conference in blocks — Washington has held its opponents to a meager .111 hitting percentage, the lowest mark in the Pac-12.

The Huskies also boast some of the toughest serving in the country, averaging nearly two aces per set.

“We need to stay in system, and spread our offense around the court and make those blockers guess,” Feller said.

Cal is no slouch on defense either. The Bears rank right behind the Huskies in allowing their opponents to hit just .121.

“Our blocking is pretty good, too,” libero Robin Rostratter said. “And our hitters are smart enough to tool the block or go around it. As long as we play aggressive, we’ll be fine.”

The two teams faced off three times in 2010, with Cal taking each meeting and only dropping one set along the way. The third matchup came in the NCAA quarterfinals, when the Bears went into Seattle and steamrolled the Huskies on their own court with a 3-0 sweep — a match in which Cal held Washington to a .000 hitting percentage in the final set.

“It’s certainly going to make for a great show, with the rivalry between us and them from last year,” Feller said.

After taking on the Huskies, the Bears will look to avoid a letdown in their 7 p.m. tilt with Washington State (11-7, 3-5) on Saturday— a task that could be easier said than done.

The Cougars currently sit in ninth place in the conference and won’t exactly offer the kind of competition that is easy to get excited for.

“After a big match, there’s definitely an energy drop,” Rostratter said. “But this will be good for us. We’re going to put all of our energy and focus into Friday night’s match, but we plan on coming out big both nights.”

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