Cal volleyball hits the road after strong start at home

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Ketki Samel/File

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Cal volleyball has looked dominant thus far in the 2017 season, winning five impressive matches in a row after dropping its first match of the season against UC Irvine. Those five wins have all come in the friendly confines of Haas Pavilion, but now the Bears are headed on the road to play a few unfamiliar foes in the Rice Adidas Invitational.

“Luckily we live in the 2010’s and video is rampant,” said Cal head coach Matt McShane. “We have at least three matches from each one of our opponents on video, so we get to see them quite a bit all week … but we’re still at a point where it has more to do with what’s going on on our side of the net.”

The Rice Tournament will feature Incarnate Word and Louisiana Lafayette, who the Bears have never played, and Rice itself, who last played Cal more than twenty years ago. Incarnate Word has not posted a winning season since 2009 and currently sits at 1-2 after having what was supposed to be its first tournament of the season canceled because of Hurricane Harvey. They feature two Southland Preseason All-Conference players in Autumn Lockley and Bryaunea Hall, an outside hitter and middle blocker, respectively. Lockley leads her team in points per set by a mile, but will have to overcome some serving yips that have led to 11 errors in three matches.

“Incarnate Word runs a really fast offense, so yesterday we ran against sets that are a lot quicker than what we normally do,” McShane said. “That’s most of it is watching the film and looking for things that we haven’t practiced.”

Louisiana posted a strong 3-1 record at last weekend’s Sawyer Camillo Memorial Classic on its home court. They did not participate in the 2016 edition of the Rice Tournament, but had wild swings in the 2014 and 2015 versions. 2014 saw Louisiana go a perfect 3-0 with wins over West Coast schools in Fresno State and UC Davis. 2015 was much rougher for the Cajuns, who lost all three of their matches in straight sets.

The hometown Owls will be the best test of the Bears, as Rice has not finished a season with under 20 wins in the last three seasons. They haven’t taken advantage of their home tournament in recent years, posting just a .500 record in this event in the past five seasons. Freshman outside hitter Nicole Lennon earned a Conference USA Freshman of the Week nod earlier this season, and should pose a great matchup with Cal freshman Mima Mirkovic, who boasts a penchant for huge kills.

“One of the big things is not getting a big head,” McShane said. “Even though we’re 5-1, the season is still very early and conference play is a couple weeks away. I think there are eight teams in the Pac-12 that are ranked in the top-30. We need to keep looking for things to improve on.”

Senior Christine Alftin’s role as a senior presence will continue to be vital, especially as Cal looks to keep things going on the road. She’s been consistent thus far, and put up big numbers throughout the Bears 3-0 run through the Cal Classic. Senior Antzela Dempi will also need to build on a fiery performance in the Cal Classic that saw her named the tournament’s most valuable player.

A young team hitting the road is always a risk, and the Bears certainly still need to prove they have what it takes to win outside of Berkeley. Opening with two home tournaments was probably a smart way of building confidence for a team coming off a poor season, but you can’t duck the realities of the road for long.

“We have quite a few freshman and sophomore on the team, so a lot of players who have never traveled before,” McShane said. “We’re all getting on planes (Thursday), we’re all double checking uniforms. We’re going to be in hotels, and we’re going to be in new gyms. … We’ve tried to make things as new as we can (in practice) so that we’re used to doing different things.”

Andrew Wild is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @andrewwild17.