While this weekend will be the 12th time that Cal will host the Molten Classic tournament, it will be the first time that Bears head coach Matt McShane will lead the Cal women’s volleyball team. And as the season opener nears, the pressures only continue to mount — not only does McShane have big coaching shoes to fill, he also has the additional pressure of turning around a previously floundering program. And it all starts with a tournament at the Bears’ home court.
Cal’s tournament play begins on Friday night against UC Irvine, the only other school from California in the tournament. The Anteaters’ star Harlee Kekauoha stands at exactly 6’0”, but performs like the tallest player on the court. Last season, she compiled the 12th most aces in the nation at 51 and had 17 matches with double-digit kills. The Bears will have to be hyper-aware of Kekauoha at the net, which will likely mean McShane calling upon his best defensive players, such as junior Amanda Kirtley, to come up with numerous blocks and digs.
UC Irvine finds its leadership in senior liberos Chloe Hakim and Luna Tsujimoto, the latter of which ended up with digs in double digits 22 times. That means that Cal hitters will have to be selective with their spikes and make smart decisions when it comes to timing and accuracy.
The Bears will face their next opponent, Loyola Chicago, on Saturday morning. The Ramblers are helmed by veteran seven-year coach Chris Muscat, who last year coached the team to a mediocre 14-18 record. Cal comes in with little knowledge of Loyola Chicago’s capabilities, as this matchup marks the first of its kind between the two schools.
Despite this unknown past, though, the Bears should be hyper-aware of juniors Gabi Maciagowski — last season, the Ramblers went 5-0 in games where she registered 20 or more kills — and Maddy Moser.
Cal will have to be mindful, though, of the fact that it has another game later in the evening, as it prepares for Loyola. The Bears will only have a few hours off before facing their last opponent of the weekend, Seattle. Cal will have had ample time to scout the Redhawks throughout the course of the weekend, but the same goes the other way as well.
The last time the Bears went head to head with the Redhawks two years ago, they fell 3-0. But with the time difference, a new head coach and a brand new recruiting class separating the games, there no reason that the outcome should be the same. Seattle’s two stars — outside hitter Katarina Marinkovic and middle blocker Maja Stojanovic — both stand at 6’2” and are formidable at the net. Marinkovic is particularly deadly on offense, where last season she led the team with 325 kills and 44 aces. If McShane scouts well, though, he should have a defensive game plan to counter the attacks that will inevitably come Cal’s way in this final matchup.
There’s a lot to prove this weekend for McShane and the Bears, and it’s of great importance that the team prove itself after years of see-sawing. If they’re able to play with cohesion and intelligence, though, there’s no reason they shouldn’t come out on top and make a big opening statement at home.
Sophie Goethals is the assistant sports editor. Contact her at [email protected]