When the Cal volleyball team played Washington and Washington State on the road a month ago, it was still looking for its first conference victory. The Bears were still adapting to the rigors of Pac-12 play and wound up losing both matches. But Cal (9-13, 3-9 Pac-12) showcased the progress it’s made this season by going 1-1 at home this weekend, dropping its match against the No. 7 Huskies (19-3, 9-3 Pac-12) but winning in straight sets against the No. 18 Cougars (17-7, 7-5 Pac-12).
The Bears began their weekend with a shaky start, making an inordinate amount of mistakes in their 3-0 loss to Washington. In the first set, the Huskies quickly found their offensive rhythm despite Cal’s best attempts at disrupting it, and they cruised to a 25-18 set win. After dropping the first set, the Bears still remained in contention for the match, with the score tied 23-23 in the second, until Washington scored back-to-back points to take a 2-0 lead. The Huskies sealed the match with a 25-19 victory in the third frame, handing Cal its third loss in a row.
“We actually played them better in Seattle than we did here,” said head coach Rich Feller. “We just made a lot of mistakes and we never really got any momentum going.”
On Saturday, the Bears looked like a completely different team. After getting outblocked 9-4 and recording zero service aces against Washington, Cal blocked and served significantly better. The Bears had two aces against Washington State, but also had many short serves that forced the Cougars into either overpassing or hitting the net and allowed Cal more time to set up its defense.
“Looking at the statistics (against Washington State), there’s nothing really to get excited about,” Feller said. “But the way we played each point and the consistency that our team showed, and the fire that they showed — winning some long rallies and some weird plays. That’s what we’ve been looking and working towards.”
While the Bears blew out Washington State in the second set, 25-17, the first and third sets of the match were competitive. Cal was tied with the Cougars late in the first set, 19-19, but its defense forced Washington State into several errors. The Bears didn’t capitalize on their first set point, but ended up winning the set 25-23. Similarly, after losing a set point, Cal won the third set 25-22 to earn its first 3-0 victory since its match against Grand Canyon in early September.
Senior middle blocker Jenelle Jordan didn’t play in the Bears’ previous matchup against the Cougars, and she proved to be a huge difference-maker this time around. Cal ranks last in the Pac-12 in blocks, and while it was still outblocked, its eight blocks for the match surpassed its average of 1.9 blocks per set. Jordan, who leads the team in blocks, was involved in seven of the eight blocks — including three straight blocks in the second set.
Jordan’s superior blocking ability can be attributed to her explosive jump as well as her ability to move her hands to the right place once they’re over the net. Ultimately, having Jordan in front of the net was beneficial not only because of the blocks she recorded, but also because the threat of her blocking their hits disrupted Washington State’s hitters and forced them to adjust the way they played. As a result, Cal — ranked last in opponent hitting percentage in the Pac-12 — held the Cougars to an abysmal 0.113 mark.
“If we can put another match together like this where we’re serving tough, we’re passing well and we’re just playing without fear of losing, that’s going to be progress,” Feller said.
A resounding victory against a ranked team is undoubtedly a huge confidence booster for a young team like the Bears. Like any other young team, Cal is desperate to see progress and although postseason aspirations may be a pipe dream, there’s reason to be optimistic.
Kapil Kashyap covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]