Cal volleyball loses 3rd straight to No. 16 Utah

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Yukun Zhang/File

Third time’s the charm, or so it is in theory. Reality proved differently for Cal volleyball on Sunday afternoon when they ended their match against Utah the same way as the team’s previous two matchups — in a bitter loss, this one coming in straight sets.

“The first rally of the match (consisted of) six or seven real big swings by both teams and then we won,” said Cal head coach Matt McShane. “That is how we played the first two games. All the players on the court were breathing heavily after the first rally. … It became two really good teams playing against each other really hard.”

Cal (9-4, 0-2) fell to No. 16 Utah (11-2, 2-0) in a  25-19, 25-21, 25-12 match in Salt Lake City. Though the Bears never took the lead in the second set, they stayed right on their opponents’ heels throughout the game. Near the end of the set, a kill from senior Antzela Dempi brought Cal within a point of the Utes, making the score 18-19.

The Bears have made falling behind and coming back to win sets somewhat of a common occurrence this year, but couldn’t pull it off here. They have previously come back from seven to eight point deficits to win sets.

“Personally, I have all the confidence in the world in my team that we can easily come back (when we’re) just down two or three … (or) even five points,” said captain and senior Christine Alftin. “When we play well, we play really well.”

Unlike the first two sets, the third was not a back-and-forth battle, partly because the Utes took a lead early in the game. Utah was able to run several points at a time, taking the score from 8-12 to 8-16. The Bears struggled to fight back, again letting the Utes go on a seven point run. Utah finished the set 25-12, earning their last two points from Cal attack errors.

“After the second (set), we were hitting over .300 as a team which is pretty good against a top ranked team,” Alftin said. “But when we got into the third set, our defense was struggling a little bit. We made some changes on defense and we weren’t able to play very consistently (so) they got a lot of kills on us.”

Dempi led Cal with her hitting, averaging a very strong .500 hitting percentage and 18 total attacks. Overall, though, the Bears’ struggled to match the Utes offensively.

Like at Stanford, Cal was only able to get one block against Utah, while the Utes had six total team blocks. With poor defense at the net, passers in the back struggled to dig. Learning from the errors at Utah, McShane plans to have defense be a primary focus in practice this week, before the Bears play their next match on Friday.

“We need to serve tougher when we go back to the service line,” Alftin added. “That was the biggest difference. We would serve easy balls and they were able to get kills on us a lot easier.”

Though the team saw its third consecutive loss in nine days, the Bears need not lose complete faith as they return for home for two matches this weekend. Perhaps the fourth time’s the charm.

Surina Khurana covers volleyball. Contact her at [email protected]