Cal opens postseason play with familiar opponent

Volleyball Cal vs. Oregon
Brenna Alexander/File

A year removed from reaching the national championship, the No. 10 Cal volleyball team opens NCAA tournament play this week with hopes of replicating its best postseason in school history.

And even before the tournament has started, it’s already reminiscent of last year’s as the squad will takes on North Carolina, a team it beat in the second round of its 2010 tournament run.

“To me, that’s too bad for North Carolina that they’re there in the tournament and they’re looking to face the same team that they played last year,” coach Rich Feller said.

The Bears will take on the Tar Heels (23-8, 15-5 in the ACC) in the first round of the NCAA tournament tonight, with first serve coming at 5 p.m. at the Firestone Fieldhouse in Malibu, Calif.

Cal (26-6, 16-6 in the Pac-12) had little trouble dispatching North Carolina when they met in the second round of last year’s tournament, advancing into the sweet sixteen with a decisive 3-0 win. The Bears’ front line dominated the match, tallying 11 blocks while allowing its opponent to hit just .085.

“We feel comfortable playing them,” junior Correy Johnson said. “They still have similar offensive schemes.”

The Tar Heels might not go down quite so easily this time around, though. Behind a balanced attack, North Carolina ranks fourth in the nation in kills per set, averaging nearly 15 a frame. Junior outside hitter Emily McGee has also come into her own in 2011, averaging nearly four kills per set as the anchor of the offense, and middle hitter Tia Gaffen, who transferred from Cal after last season, has helped shore up the middle section.

“I think they’re a little better than they were last year,” Feller said. “They’ve got a little more solid outside attack, and the middles are a little more active. They bring a few more weapons to the court.”

But the Tar Heels have only played four matches against ranked opponents — and lost three of them. North Carolina has also struggled in big games, getting blown out 3-0 in a nationally televised game against rival Duke.

On top of that, Cal is coming off arguably its best performance of the season, a 3-1 win over No. 6 Stanford at Maples Pavilion. While the defense handled a usually potent Stanford attack, senior outside hitter Tarah Murrey spearheaded a dominant Cal offense, laying down 23 kills and taking over the match.

“In the week preparing for Stanford, we had really good practices, and we’ve been making steps forward,” Murrey said. “That really showed in the match, and we’re just going to carry on with that and keep the fire.”

The winner of the match will advance to the second round to face off with either Missouri State or 15-seed Pepperdine for a chance to advance to the Honolulu Regional.

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