Cal volleyball suffers through another bleak season

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Zainab Ali/File

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For the Cal volleyball team, the 2016 season was filled with its share of highlights. Redshirt freshman Savannah Rennie — ranked PrepVolleyball.com’s No. 20 senior ace coming out of high school — made her much-anticipated and emotion-wracked debut after undergoing a successful liver transplant. The Bears also recorded their most impressive win of the season in late October, dominating No. 25 Washington State for a 3-0 victory.

These successes, however, were sparse.

On paper, Cal’s performance showed striking similarities to its season in 2015, which can only be interpreted as a disappointment. The Bears finished last in the Pac-12 for the second straight season, compiling an underwhelming 3-17 record in conference play — the exact same mark as last year’s team. This marks the third season in a row that the Bears failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament.

Cal heads into the spring with a bitter taste in its mouth, ending the season on an eight-match losing streak. The Bears showed flashes of brilliance, but their inconsistency separated them from the more successful teams in their conference. With a number of capable hitters, Cal had the personnel to put together a strong offense but played far too error-prone in many of their matches.

The Bears identified their defensive deficiencies early on in the season but still couldn’t rectify them — and the statistics reflect that. Cal finished last in the Pac-12 in opponent hitting percentage and blocks. Defensive lapses cost the Bears on several occasions, especially in long rallies, and these mistakes culminated into losses.

While Cal deserves blame for its performance, it was also in the wrong place at the wrong time. In a down season for the program, the Bears found themselves in the midst of a historically competitive conference. Cal matched up against ranked and formerly ranked teams on a weekly basis, so its record against Pac-12 opponents paints a slightly exaggerated version of the team’s struggles.

Now, the Bears find themselves in a similar position to the one they were in last year. There’s no clear path to relevancy for Cal, other than hoping that the continuity of its roster and the development of its young players can propel the team up the standings.

But, the Bears’ crop of seniors for next season isn’t as star-studded as this year’s group, which included starting libero Maddy Kerr and starting setter Alyssa Jensen. Junior Christine Alftin, the team’s leader in kills this season, headlines Cal’s senior class for next season. As a hitter, Alftin will need to rely on her teammates to help create opportunities for her. Much of Cal’s success will thus be contingent on the ability of sophomore libero Amanda Kirtley and sophomore setter Mackenzie Albrecht to take over Kerr and Jensen’s respective roles.

Though the Bears aren’t likely to break their postseason drought next year, there’s reason for hope. Cal snagged three top-100 recruits, including middle blockers Preslie Anderson and Lauren Forte, and it should expect improvement from hitters Bailee Huizenga and Maddie Haynes, who finished second and fourth on the team in kills this season, respectively. Regression to the mean suggests that the Pac-12 won’t be as loaded next year, which will help the Bears bridge the gap between themselves and conference powerhouses such as Washington.

Kapil Kashyap covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]