Cal volleyball does not have any superstars on its squad. No one Bear can carry them to victory with kill after kill or block after block. What it does have, however, is a lot of really good players — in the starting lineup and on the bench.
Flexibility is the name of the game for Cal volleyball coach Rich Feller. To adapt to a roster full of young, developing underclassmen and no players in particular to turn to on offense or defense, he has had no other choice but to embrace the team’s depth and versatility.
“(Flexibility) is incredibly important for our team,” Feller said. “In my opinion, we’re not a team with a bunch of superstars. We have a lot of really good players.”
To illustrate the roster’s strengths, he pointed to the team’s growing arsenal of players whom he can plug in at different places and positions. Junior middle blocker Jenelle Jordan can play at the middle or the right, providing much-needed depth off the bench. Freshman outside hitter Belen Castillo, in her short time on the team, has already impressed Feller with her ability to play on the right or left sides as the outside hitter. Senior outside hitter Nikki Gombar, familiar with Cal’s offensive and defensive tendencies, has found that she is comfortable anywhere on the court, even as the defensive specialist. This versatility will be significant when the Bears play St. Mary’s in a home match Friday at 7 p.m.
Gombar began the year starting on the left side as outside hitter, playing all six rotations in the front row and back. The next couple of matches, she played as the defensive specialist only in the back row. Then when Castillo suffered a minor injury against Air Force, Feller substituted Gombar in to play in the front row, and Gombar proceeded to play exceptionally well. Her niche on the team may never have been clearly defined, but she got comfortable with playing an array of positions.
The Bears’ depth and versatility is further exemplified by the discovery of sophomore defensive specialist Hannah Aguirre and her unique skill set. Despite Aguirre not playing at all last season, Feller praised her as the “most consistent service receiver for the two matches she played.” The sophomore finished the Service Academy Classic, the first tournament she has played in, as the highest-rated passer.
“There may be a circumstance that Lara (Vukasovic) is better than Jenelle, even though they were both playing well,” Feller said to illustrate his squad’s flexibility. “We know that we can use either one, and that trust is there.”
But the Bears will need more than trust and communication to compete against the high-level volleyball teams in the Pac-12. Nearing the end of his team’s nonconference schedule with a match against St. Mary’s, Feller expects Cal’s match against St. Mary’s to be a dog fight.
Cal needed former-opposite hitter Christina Higgins to contribute 15 kills on a .394 hitting percentage and four blocks, along with a career night from junior defensive specialist Mary McKennon to fend off St. Mary’s in four sets last season.
To beat St. Mary’s this time around, Cal will most likely look to its middle blockers on offense.
“Our middles have been strong for a couple years now,” said redshirt senior middle blocker Lillian Schonewise. “Especially this year, we’re focused on getting the ball to our middles to get kills when necessary. It’s important to remain calm as a middle because a lot of things happen before you get the ball.”
The Bears lost more nonconference matches this season than they did when they were at this point in their schedule last year. But by playing 14 sets in three matches over the course of two days, they gained much-needed experience and got more comfortable playing with each other.
[St. Mary’s] will be harder than last year, because we’re still building our trust and system confidence,” said coach Feller. “Last year when we played them we had more wins and more momentum going in. But every single match is a challenge and different.”
Winston Cho covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho