Cal volleyball to battle Utah, Colorado

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Karen Chow/File

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The heat of the Pac-12 has thus far proven far too much for the Cal volleyball team to handle. But unfortunately for the struggling Bears, there’s no way out of this hellfire kitchen.

Since the night of Sept. 10, Cal has won six sets and lost 19 on its way to six match losses in seven tries. After a three-game, three-loss road trip that fully embodied the variance in Pac-12 team quality, the Bears will crawl home to Berkeley in desperate need of a moment to lick their deep wounds and correct the considerable hitch in their collective step. Instead, what they’ll next get are the mighty Utes and No. 19 Buffaloes.

Oh, brother.

As the Pac-12 race reaches its early autumn fervor, the Bears find their unraveling season slipping faster and faster through their fingers. While Cal (6-8) is only four games out of first place, its 0-4 record in conference play make pack-leading Washington State (14-2) seem an entire world away. But the Bears’ eyes remain forward.

“We haven’t been home since playing against Stanford (on Sept. 20), and that feels like a long time ago,” said head coach Rich Feller. “We’re just looking for areas to improve here and there: we’ve added a few new wrinkles and we’re getting some new people in the lineup.”

That’s also not to say that the team hasn’t shown bright spots. Cal’s budding freshmen hitters, Maddie Haynes and Bailee Huizenga, have become increasingly comfortable on a collegiate court, and senior blocker Jenelle Jordan has shown flashes of being among the league’s best. But like most things when it comes to these Bears, consistency has been their eternally inescapable and all-too-inevitable rub.

That decidedly brittle mettle will again be cast in the forge this weekend, when Utah and Colorado ride into town.

The 11-4 Utes come into their Berkeley tango off a 3-2 loss to No. 22 USC that dropped them out of the top 25. But don’t be fooled: Utah fields a high-powered offense centered around ringleader Adora Anae.

The junior hitter has followed her impressive sophomore campaign — one that included becoming Utah’s single-season leader with 501 kills and earning a 1st-Team All-Pac-12 nod — with an equally strong 2016. She currently leads the conference in kills per set with 4.73, and has flexed her muscles with 25, 31 and 27-kill performances since last month.

But Feller remains confident in stopping her and the rest of her firework-laden offense.

“All the teams in the Pac-12 have lots of good players, so stopping one is always something you look at, but it’s really not the essence of winning” he said.

If there is a crack in the Ute armor, however, it lies on the defensive end. They’ve  allowed their opponents a somewhat-robust .196 hitting percentage — placing Utah 10th in the conference. It also ranks 10th in blocks per set with 2.21. These statistics seem like a ray of hope for Cal, until noticing who sits dead last in both of these measures — the bad-news Bears.

On Sunday, the Buffaloes will then get their shot at the weekend host when they try to gain ground on the five-team bottleneck in the middle of the conference.

The Buffs are led up front by the duo of 6-foot-3 Joslyn Hayes and 6-foot-4 Naghede Abu. Both average over a block per set, at 1.05 and 1.44, respectively. Abu also places eighth in the Pac-12 with a .368 hitting percentage. The twin blockers in the middle form a strong front wall of a truly Tenacious “D.”

Colorado also sports an efficient 6-2 offense that revolves around its two prolific setters, Gabby Simpson and Kiara McKibben. The two combine for nearly 12 assists per set, and act as dual playmakers for an offense that’s currently third in the Pac-12 in kill percentage, hitting .270 as a unit.

In the search for a signature conference win, the Bears will have two chances this weekend to score a knockout well above their weight class.

Ding-ding-ding.

Austin Isaacsohn covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @AustinIsaacsohn