For the second weekend in a row, the Bears showcased some of their best and worst stretches of volleyball of the season. The Cal volleyball team (8-10, 2-6 Pac-12) faced off against a pair of opponents from Arizona in front of its home crowd at Haas Pavilion, inexplicably following up a loss to Arizona State (8-12, 1-7 Pac-12) — ranked last in the Pac-12 — with a nail-biting win over Arizona (13-7, 5-3 Pac-12), who fell to a tie for third place in the Pac-12.
“Some conferences have a real separation between the top five and the bottom five,” said Cal head coach Rich Feller. “In the Pac-12, there’s really not that separation.”
The Bears battled the Sun Devils, who had yet to win a conference match, on Friday. And, on paper, they seemed to perform as well, if not marginally better, than them. Led by redshirt sophomore Ashten Smith-Gooden, the Bears edged out Arizona State in kills, digs, blocks and hitting percentage while also recording fewer attack errors. Smith-Gooden recorded 20 kills on a 0.385 hitting percentage and led all players in kills for the match.
But the Sun Devils scored timely points at pivotal moments in the match, particularly in the third set, to win in four sets. Cal split the first two sets with the Sun Devils and looked to be on the heels of overtaking Arizona State in the third. The Bears led 26-25 and were just one point away from claiming a 2-1 lead but allowed the Sun Devils to score three consecutive points and win the set, 28-26.
“I think one through 12, every team is good,” Feller said about the depth in the Pac-12. “Every team can upset another team or crush another team on a given night.”
In what was another glowing example of the Pac-12’s depth, Cal played against Arizona on Sunday, a team that received the most votes of any team not voted into the top 25. Arizona beat three consecutive ranked opponents (USC, UCLA and Stanford) on the road prior to Sunday’s match and looked to extend its streak against one of the lowest-ranked teams in the Pac-12 in Cal. But the Bears upset the heavily favored Wildcats in five hard-fought sets.
After winning the first set against Arizona off seven hits from sophomore blocker Belen Castillo, Cal found itself tied 23-23 in the second. The Bears, however, were unable to capitalize on the situation and, with two points in a row, the Wildcats tied up the match 1-1. Arizona scored at the most important moments of the third set as well and managed to transform a 19-19 tie into a 25-20 set victory.
Down 2-1 in the match, the Bears’ resiliency — a recurring theme this season — was on display as they fought through the deficit. Cal won a tightly contested fourth set 25-23 and needed just 15 points in the fifth set to defeat the Sun Devils. The Bears jumped out to an early lead, 12-6, thanks to some strong offensive play and several Arizona errors. Freshman Maddie Haynes tallied a kill on the final play of the match to earn the 3-2 victory for the Bears, marking the first time they beat the Wildcats since 2013.
With another conference victory under its belt, Cal is getting closer to finding the consistency of play it needs to be considered a threat in the Pac-12 but still has a lot of ground to cover. The Bears currently stand at 10th in the Pac-12 and will need to move up several spots if they hope to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
Kapil Kashyap covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]