Cal volleyball to play against Oregon

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Karen Chow/File

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The Bears were close, again. They looked great, again. And after fighting tooth and nail for a bit with Stanford, the eleventh best team in the country, they were eventually felled by the trees — again. But Rich Feller, the head coach of the Cal volleyball team (6-5) and their loudest promoter all season, sees positivity in the definite growth of his core.

“There’s some fine tuning that still has to go on,” Feller said. We’re still working on a lot of little things.”

But they certainly have made headway. The freshmen whom he’s been so increasingly trusting, Maddie Haynes and Bailee Huizenga, are showing signs of becoming legitimate threats from the outside at the Division I level. They’re even sometimes capable of carrying the load for an offense that already features proven sharpshooting senior Jenelle Jordan and junior Christine Alftin.

When Feller’s team plays well together, it can stand its ground against some of the nation’s best. But then, the Bears can also be the team that loses a quick three sets and hears the final whistle before they can even get the ball rolling. There is real promise shown, but its flaw of inconsistency has thus far been a fatal one. So how has the team looked for ways to grow?

“Probably in practice, more drills that have something at stake — a little more pressure added to it so that we have to sustain drills where there’s longer rallies which can create those in practice so that they have to play a sustained level before they get rewarded,” Feller said.

So with Feller’s crafty coaching at hand, Cal will hop onto the next stepping stone of its Pac-12 gauntlet Friday against Oregon (7-2) with a confidence they’ve certainly maintained through the hectic tides of preseason. But cracks in the armor have been exposed.

The Bears just haven’t shown much in the way of that “killer instinct”. And although Feller keeps finding legitimate building blocks atop these close-but-not-really losses, it’s only a matter of time before the team figures out whether these flashes of brilliance they display so frustratingly occasionally are the drowsy haymakers of a sleeping giant that’s slowly waking or the death throes of a team that just can’t quite figure it out.

If Stanford was a rock, Oregon is certainly a very hard place. The Ducks have flown an elite flock for years, reaching the last five straight national Sweet 16s, and this year the birds look fit as ever. They have a nasty front line that can play as well wide as they can tall — which is very well — and have been dominant on defense in their last past patch of matches.

They’re led by powerful junior Taylor Agost, who is as good a hitter as the Pac-12 boasts this year. She’s a consistent killer who plays with the expectation of greatness you look for in such a blue chip.

“(Oregon head coach Jim Moore) told me ‘If you’re not an all-American, I’m not doing my job,'” Agost told Oregon Athletics. “That stuck with me.”

And the Ducks can play with that sort of confidence, because they’re No. 24 in the nation. They’re successful. And the Bears are still trying to prove themselves — again.

Austin Isaacsohn covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected].