Cal volleyball finds positives in Wednesday loss to USC, ready to take on UCLA Sunday

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Cesar Ruiz/Staff

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The Bears need something to change — and they might have found it in redshirt sophomore outside hitter Nikki Gombar.

The Cal volleyball team lost to the No. 19 Trojans on Wednesday night at Haas Pavilion. The Bears (8-11, 0-9 Pac-12) fell to USC (12-7, 5-4) in four sets, as Cal remains winless in the Pac-12. But despite yet another loss for the Bears, Gombar proved that just one person can help spark a flame.

“Nikki hit a couple of those back row attacks, and I looked at that and said, ‘Maybe I have to leave her in the front row,’ ” said Cal head coach Rich Feller. “Ashten (Smith-Gooden) wasn’t getting the kills, so why not put Nikki in there? And she proved that she could do it, so that’s going to be big moving forward.”

After a strong start, the Bears took the lead in the first set but could not hold on as the Trojans, led by junior outside hitter Samantha Bricio, overpowered Cal and eventually took the first set, 25-21.

Statistically, this is where the Bears have tended to fall apart — past matches have shown that this season, Cal has had trouble coming back after falling behind in the first set. But the Bears came out in the second set and instead of faltering kept their composure, and then some.

The second set saw Cal holding the normally dominant Trojans offense to a .105 hitting percentage. The Bears offense also came together, led by sophomore libero Maddy Kerr, who served for six-straight points and added to Cal’s 11-4 lead. USC battled back to cut the lead down to four points, but the Bears’ redshirt junior middle blocker Lillian Schonewise prevented the Trojans from bouncing all the way back after three kills in a row, allowing Cal to take the second set, 25-17.

Unfortunately for the Bears, the improved Cal squad went downhill in the third set, and USC took the set, 25-19. The Bears had a mere .154 hitting percentage, and compared to the Trojans’ .306, it wasn’t enough for Cal to take back the momentum they had gained in the second set.

USC took an early 9-3 lead in the fourth set, and it seemed as if the Trojans were headed for an easy win. Instead, the Bears came all the way back and took the lead, 17-16, largely with the help of Gombar, who had a .467 hitting percentage and seven kills for the night. But the combined forces of USC’s Bricio and sophomore outside hitter Ebony Nwanebu was too much for the Bears, and the Trojans took the fourth set, 25-21, and with it, the game.

This game marked one of Cal’s best defensive games of the season so far with a team total of 77 digs. Gombar had a breakout night, recording 18 digs on the night, while Kerr also recorded 18 of her own. Schonewise and freshman opposite hitter Antzela Dempi each earned four blocks apiece while adding 14 kills and eight kills, respectively.

Now, the Bears will stay in Berkeley as they prepare to take on No. 17 UCLA at Haas Pavilion Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m.

“We can’t look at the record right now, because that’s just defeating us,” Feller said. “We’ve got UCLA (coming up), and then we start the Pac-12 all over again. If we don’t get a win next time but we play like this, eventually we’ll get one.”

Alicia Fong covers volleyball. Contact her at [email protected]