Cal volleyball looks to build on big Arizona upset this week against USC, UCLA

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Lianne Frick/File

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The strong showings against Santa Clara and Stanford were just aggressive snores. The win over Colorado? Perhaps a roll over and a long stretch. The most recent upset of Arizona, however, may have truly been the final stir of the slow-but-sure awakening of the Cal volleyball team (8-10, 2-6 Pac-12).

But, the still-groggy Bears must warm up a bit in the southern sun before they can definitively wipe the sleep from their eyes. Against USC and UCLA, two of the best teams in all the nation, Cal will have all the opportunity it could ever ask for to prove that it’s finally roused from a three-year hibernation and a much-too-long slumber from the postseason.

“I think everything is getting a little bit better,” said Cal head coach Rich Feller. “Our strength all year has been our passing, and that has remained steady, and now with the other things beginning to build a bit, it has allowed the passing to do its job and get us into system.”

The bad news for the Bears is they still lie far on the outskirts of the main event: still in the definite background of the ever-clearing postseason picture. They sit three full games behind Arizona, the next team in front of them with a winning conference record. But the good news for Cal is that the recently upset Wildcats are one of seven teams in the Pac-12’s top-eight slots that all share the exact same 5-3 conference record. So, at 2-6, the Bears are not only three games out of eighth place but also three games out of second.

What’s even better for the suddenly lucky Bears is that the the two games they’ll play this weekend will both be against squads that also reside in that very same seven-team whirlwind at the heart of the conference, presenting the chance to use the Trojans and Bruins as hugely — and I mean hugely — impactful stepping stones to the eventual but still ultimately unlikely goal of a playoff run. But the team knows it doesn’t have time to look up whatsoever, yet.

“I don’t look at (the standings),” Feller said. “I know where we are.”

Despite standing at a tall 13-6, USC has had trouble defending its home turf. The Trojans have recorded an impressive 7-0 record on the road but have only managed an even 6-6 in Los Angeles this year. The No. 25 team in the nation must regress to the mean eventually, though, and five victories in its past six matches surely prove that the Women of Troy are a power to be reckoned with out west.

They’re led by the meteoric rise of a young killer who’s already making a name for herself at the national level. Freshman Khalia Lanier rode into Troy carrying a heavy burden of expectations  — winning the Gatorade National Player of the Year as a senior in high school — but has thus far met, even exceeded, every one.

Lanier leads the team in kills, racking up nearly 100 more than the player in second place, putting her fourth in the entire conference, and is one of two players on roster who has started and played in every match this year. While No. 15 UCLA may field a better holistic team, USC boasts the bluest chip in all the conference — if not the nation.

Speaking of the streaking Bruins, their biggest team strength is their overt lack of a team weakness. They’re strong from front line to back, as evidenced by Torrey Van Winden recently winning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week while her teammate Taylor Formico won the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week. UCLA is in the conference’s top two in assists as well as digs and kills as well as opponent’s hitting percentage. They’re a solid unit, and the trope of David and Goliath is overplayed, but let’s just say the Bears should bring along a slingshot or two into Westwood.

Cal, though, looks ready for the fight. The team is finally playing symbiotically, and has been blessed with the coming out of sophomore middle blocker Belen Castillo, who put down a career-high 20 kills in her last game, with a white-hot .563 hitting percentage.

“She’s still a work in progress, she’s getting better every day. The offensive side of her game kind of exploded over the last couple of weeks, and that’s great to see because we really need that,” Feller said. “The defensive side, the blocking side, is still just getting better and better.”

The maturing Bears may very well be awake but must now prove that they’re well-rested from the extended siesta.

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