Bogged down by a struggling offense and an even worse defense, the Cal volleyball team has been comfortable with the idea of change this season: a change in its goals and motivations in a tormented season of one loss after another. And with the loser of their next game ranking as the worst team in the conference, the Bears have but one goal on their mind: to release their vicegrip on the ill-desired title.
In a matchup of the two worst teams in the Pac-12, Cal (9-19 overall, 1-17 Pac-12) goes on the road to take on Washington State (10-20, 1-17) on Wednesday.
“It’s been ongoing to keep everyone motivated and make sure they know there’s still things to play for,” said head coach Rich Feller. “Knowing weeks ago that we weren’t going to the NCAA tournament, we had to adjust to that and reset goals and make sure that we’re playing hard every day and working to get better. And that’s really what it’s about — working to get better everyday.”
Cal and Washington State are both coming off losses over the weekend to Utah and Arizona, respectively. But the Bears were blown out in four sets, while the Cougars competed in a five-set barnburner against one of the best teams in the conference.
While the Bears also lost to Colorado over the weekend, Cal has much improved compared to the beginning of the season. In the conference, its offense is now tied with Arizona and Oregon State for eighth place in hitting percentage at .202.
The Bears are led by four-year opposite hitter Christina Higgins, who is backed by the middle blocker duo of Lillian Schonewise and Lara Vukasovic. Last week, Schonewise propped up an ice-cold Cal offense when she racked up 15 kills and hit the ball at a .542 percentage, but it wasn’t enough to drag a lifeless Cal offense past Utah.
Outside the last game, Cal has been far improved on the offensive end. As Feller’s No. 1 option, Higgins is now seventh in the Pac-12, with 4.24 kills per set. And while Schonewise doesn’t kill as many balls as Higgins, she’s now eighth in the conference in hitting percentage at .337.
“We have to be consistent,” Feller said. “We have to do some of the things we couldn’t do on Sunday against Utah, and that is when we get a perfect pass off service receive, we have to put the ball away. If we can be successful in our first-ball attack, then we’re going to have a much better night of it.”
In Feller’s system, which stresses transition opportunities, Cal’s hitters have many chances at kills. But for the majority of the season, the Bears haven’t been finishing their opportunities. And now with role players such as middle blocker Jenelle Jordan and opposite hitter Ashten Smith-Gooden stepping up, Feller’s squad is much more dangerous on the offensive end.
While Cal may have had more success on the offensive side of the court, however, the Cougars are that much better on the defensive end. Washington State allows opponents to hit the ball only at a clip of .233, good enough for seventh in the conference. Powered by 2.43 blocks and 15.41 digs per set, the Cougars boast an effective defense but an inefficient offense.
“It’s going to be a hard match to compete in, but I’m looking forward to it,” Feller said. “Again, it’s a chance to play a team that’s similar to us in a lot of ways — similar in that they haven’t had as much success that they would’ve liked this year. They’re a good team.”
Winston Cho covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho