When the final point hit the floor of Cal women’s volleyball first-round NCAA tournament match, the squad saw a sight they thought they would never have to see again: North Carolina celebrating an NCAA tournament victory at the expense of the Bears.
In 2011, Cal suffered an agonizing first-round loss at the hands of the Tar Heels. In Ames, Iowa on Friday night, history repeated itself. Cal’s tumultuous season ended with a 3-1 (26-24, 25-23, 18-25, 16-25) defeat to UNC (26-5) in the first round of the tournament.
“It’s been a great four years with our seniors, but unfortunately they were unable to finish on one of their best years,” coach Rich Feller said.
Cal (15-16) began their 11th straight appearance to the NCAA tournament with a nightmarish start. Cal struggled with serve and receive to begin the set, quickly falling behind 8-2 and in need of a timeout.
“We were losing because of our mistakes,” senior Kat Brown said. “It wasn’t physical errors — it was the mental errors.”
The Bears turned things around, pulling even late in the set at 20-20. Even more surprising, Cal had the opportunity to steal the set with match point at 24-23 after a double block by outside hitter Christina Higgins and middle blocker Shannon Hawari.
However, a critical double hit error by freshman Lara Vukasovic tied the match at 24-24. And then two straight points by the Tar Heels gave them the set victory, 27-25.
UNC’s offense created issues for the Bears to begin the second set. After Caloiaro and Hawari each had to dive to keep a ball alive, the net was wide open for a quick Tar Heel kill.
At 22-21 in favor of UNC, an impressive effort by the back three of the Tar Heels not only prevented Gehan from registering another kill but also led to a counter kill.
“North Carolina kept us out of rhythm,” Feller said. “Every time we had some momentum, they would take the ball out of the air and make something happen.”
UNC converted their second opportunity at set point only minutes later, winning the frame 25-23 and taking the 2-0 lead going into the break.
With their season hanging in the balance, the Bears played well in the third frame, executing offensively and playing in system. The seniors — Brown and Hawari — played a major part, carrying the Bears to the 25-18 set victory, contributing both offensively and defensively.
The fourth set began as a dramatic affair but ended in a blowout. Through the 24th point, the set had seen multiple ties and lead changes. However, UNC began a 9-3 run to put the game out of reach.
“In the third set, we were digging more balls and passing better, but in the fourth it all went away,” Hawari said.
With the Bears on the brink of elimination, Tar Heel freshman Victoria McPherson provided the final blow.
UNC won the set 25-16 and was on to the second round. Cal was on their way home.
Austin Crochetiere covers volleyball. Contact him at email@example.com