Cal volleyball set for solid competition at Arizona, Arizona State

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The Grand Canyon runs nearly 300 miles through the heart of the northern Arizona redlands. The mile-deep, steep-cliff crevasse was formed by roughly 17 million years of aquatic erosion, and thanks to conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt, today it remains well-preserved and maintains, its awe-inspiring beauty.

The area was believed to be a holyland by the Native Americans who once called the Southwest home, and standing at the edge of the forbidding chasm, it isn’t hard to see why. It’s a true natural wonder — a sight as incredible as it is incomprehensible.

Which makes Cal volleyball’s next two matches — one Friday in Tucson, Arizona, against the Wildcats and another against the Sun Devils in Tempe, Arizona, on Saturday — seem somehow more inconsequential than they already are. All three teams lack super realistic shots at postseason contention, and while the Grand Canyon has never competed in any playoff or tournament, it certainly has never underwhelmed either.

Okay, harsh. But I mean, seriously — look at this place!

That’s not to discount Cal’s undoubted growth. The team has, in spurts, looked like one that can compete with, and sometimes beat, just about any school in the stupidly overloaded powerhouse of a conference it reluctantly calls home. But, as its 3-13 Pac-12 record proves, these moments are either too infrequent or too unsustained to mean much more than the one word that has haunted the halls of Haas Pavilion for years now: disappointment.

With no playoff hope in their hearts, the Bears must sustain their competitive fire on more of a game-to-game basis, and through — as cheesy as it sounds — moral victories. The good news for Cal, though, is that both of its upcoming games offer much for incoming confidence, and a bit of success — no matter how too little or too late — would be great for the morale of the tired Bears who are all too ready for a winter’s worth of hibernation.

Cal enters the weekend with more expectation of victory than they have in a while. Both the 16-12 Wildcats and the 9-19 Sun Devils seem wholly beatable, with the Bears winning their last game over Arizona, and Arizona State losing their last five.

Treading through the rough red dirt is never a cakewalk, however. Arizona features a devastating offense centered around the Pac-12’s most prolific assister in Penina Snuka (1,119 dimes thus far) and hitters Kendra Dahlke and Kalei Mau, who are the No. 2 and No.4 most bountiful killers in the conference, respectively, both averaging right around four kills per set.

And while Arizona State doesn’t seem all that intimidating on paper, the Sun Devils turned up the heat in Berkeley last month and put the Bears through their very own inferno, 3-1.

And while Cal has ridden the strong play of a rotating cast of characters this year, the star currently taking the centerstage — junior Christine Alftin — is shining brighter than anyone has all year. She’s led her team in kills in six of their past seven matches, and she may even carry them to a victory or two in the desert. It still wouldn’t be as pretty as the Grand Canyon, though.

But hey, what is?

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