The Big Spike certainly did not feel like a match between the No. 8 team in the country and an unranked squad coming off two brutal, embarrassing losses.
Instead, it felt more like what a match between two historic rivals located just a handful of miles apart should feel like.
Cal (7-3) was not expected to give the Cardinal (8-2) much trouble. After all, No. 8 Stanford was picked to win the conference in the preseason and is widely regarded as one of the best teams in the country. The match had all the makings of a blowout in the Cardinal’s favor.
But that didn’t stop the Bears from putting up a fight. Although the Bears lost in four sets (25-20, 23-25, 22-25, 26-28), every single one of those sets gave the Cardinal a challenge.
The Bears found themselves facing a less-than-healthy Cardinal squad, which may have led to the back-and-forth nature of the match. Inky Ajanaku — who currently ranks ninth in the conference in hitting percentage — did not play for the Cardinal last night, and she did not appear to be on the bench, either. But that didn’t slow down the Cardinal too much, as Ajanaku’s replacement, Megan McGehee, hit a whopping .562.
After ugly losses to UC Davis and Kansas State in which the Bears got sloppy with passing and made communication errors, the team looked sharp Thursday. Cal moved the ball better and was able to keep each set close until the end, never losing a set by more than three points.
The Bears made vast improvements in the way they ran their offense. Whereas last week at UC Davis the match turned into Cal getting the ball to Adrienne Gehan at every possible opportunity, on Wednesday the squad spread it around. Gehan still got her touches — with 19 kills off .180 hitting — but other players were also able to shine and keep the offense from becoming one-dimensional. Lara Vukosovic led the Bears with .455 hitting and recorded 12 kills. Meanwhile, Lillian Schonewise and Christina Higgins each had 11 kills.
“We played a lot more consistently,” Gehan said after the match. “Our passing was good, and our defense played a lot better than it had in the last few games.”
Cal was able to mount comebacks in nearly every set off its impressive team play, but the Cardinal always had an answer for the Bears’ attacks. Stanford outhit the Bears, .314 to .216. Cal also had 25 attacking errors to Stanford’s 16.
“I’m pretty happy with the way we ran our offense most of the time,” said Cal coach Rich Feller. “But we still need to find a couple more kills per game.”
In the fourth and ultimately final set, the Bears began their comeback, at one point setting themselves up with set point, 25-24. But as the two teams went blow for blow, the Cardinal was finally able to outpace Cal and took the set and the match, 28-26.
“That’s the best we’ve played in a while,” Feller said. “So I’m pretty pleased with that, except for the outcome.”
Riley McAtee covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected].