Cal volleyball hopes to defy lowly preseason expectations in 2016

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Jessica Gleason/Staff

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Watching Carli Lloyd compete in Rio this summer as the backup setter for the United States Olympic volleyball team served as an unsettling reminder of how far removed Cal volleyball is from the days when it was a contender in the sport. During Lloyd’s time on the team from 2007 to 2011, the Bears made their only two trips to the NCAA Final Four, even competing in the NCAA title match in 2010.

Since then, Cal has struggled to remain a threat in the Pac-12, finishing the 2015-16 season with a 3-17 conference record, a mark that put the program last in the Pac-12. They had a similarly disastrous record in the season prior, closing the 14-15 season with a record of 2-18 in Pac-12 play. There’s little reason to believe that 2016 will be the season that the Bears return to contention, but they can and should be better.

Cal is losing some of its key cogs, with the graduation of four seniors from last season’s roster. The most notable departure is that of star middle blocker Lillian Schonewise, who led the team with her 318 kills and even earned an all Pac-12 team nod despite her team’s subpar record. Nikki Gombar, Lara Vukasovic and Mary McKennon were also important pieces whose production will need to be replaced. McKennon seldom played, but Gombar was valuable to the rotation and Vukasovic was integral to the team as a starter, averaging an impressive 2.54 kills per set.

The Bears will look to their new batch of seniors, led by defensive maestro Maddy Kerr, to take over the reins. Kerr, a senior, amassed a total of 459 digs last season, the ninth highest total in Cal history. It will be critical, however, that the Bears continue to see growth from younger players such as sophomore Christine Alftin, who posted the team’s second highest kills total with 262. Alftin showed her versatility as a player last season by also finishing the season with 208 digs, good for third-highest on the team. Her development this year will be especially important given Schonewise’s departure — she’ll need to lead the offense.

The addition of Maddie Haynes, a 6-foot-4 outside hitter who has been practicing with the team since she enrolled in spring 2016, is one thing Cal has to look forward to this season. Haynes is a top prospect from Rocklin, CA who competed on the U.S. Youth National Team and led her high school to consecutive Sac-Joaquin Section titles. Haynes will be joined by defensive specialist Kat Knop, freshman Bailee Huizenga and transfers Caihla Petiprin and Jessica Gaffney to form the contingent of newcomers to the team.

Cal will also benefit from the return of redshirt sophomore Ashten Smith-Gooden, who was ranked as the No. 5 Senior Ace as a recruit, according to PrepVolleyball.com. In her two years on the Bears’ roster, Smith-Gooden has been plagued by injuries and even redshirted last year as a result of a severe knee injury that kept her sidelined. With the return of Smith-Gooden, Cal adds another outside hitter, making it a relatively deep position on the team’s roster.

In this year’s annual preseason Pac-12 coaches poll, the Bears finished 10th in the polling with 27 points, just ahead of Arizona State (26 points) and Oregon State (22 points). This suggests that Cal is projected to miss out on the NCAA tournament, but it also shows that coaches expect the Bears to improve from their last place finish.

With several returning starters and a few notable additions, there’s reason to expect that Cal will be an improved team. It’s a long road to return to the tier of elite Pac-12 teams that Stanford, UCLA, Washington and USC currently occupy, but the Bears may finally have the young talent in place to continue an upward trajectory for the next few seasons.

Kapil Kashyap covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]