Cal beach volleyball to open up Pac-12 play against defending champions

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St. Mary’s? Check. Pacific? Check. San Jose State? Check, check, check.

No. 16 Cal beach volleyball has knocked each of its Northern California competitors off its task list — but this weekend will test the Bears (11-1) as they travel down to Southern California, the home and heart of beach volleyball, to play four ranked opponents.

The Pac-12 South Tournament will be played in sunny Santa Monica, where Cal will face No. 4 USC and No. 19 Washington on Saturday and No. 2 UCLA and No. 11 Arizona on Sunday.

“While we are competing against higher level teams this weekend, our focus and our goals remain the same as they have the entire season,” said head coach Meagan Owusu. “We continue to put our heads down and work this week and get ready to compete on Saturday and Sunday.”

The weekend is set to start with the Bears tackling possibly the toughest competition right out of the gates — USC, the defending NCAA and Pac-12 champion.

The past four encounters with the Trojans have been the opposite of the Trojan War, with USC sweeping Cal each time. Though the teams’ history isn’t long, USC has never fallen to Cal, and the team will certainly be looking to extend its streak, especially as the tournament host.

While the Trojans did graduate some players last year, they return five starters in addition to gaining a skilled freshmen class. Like Cal, the rookies play a key role for USC, with a freshman on each of its top three pairs.

After Cal takes on USC, it will turns its attention to Washington — the only opponent of the weekend that the Bears outrank.

Hailing from Seattle, the Huskies are on a long California road trip with the Pac-12 South Tournament as their final destination.

Washington (2-1) hasn’t had much of a season yet but will play in three more duals before taking on Cal. While last season the Bears beat the Huskies 4-1 in conference play, Washington swept Cal in the Pac-12 championships.

The competition will not let up there as the Bears will still have to tame the Bruins. UCLA has only lost three duals — USC, No. 1 Pepperdine and now-No. 3 Hawaii — and still, the Bruins later beat the Warriors.

“UCLA and USC are fully established beach programs,” Owusu said. “We’ve played a good amount of indoor programs that are competing on the beach, but these girls are trained year-round on the sand so they’re strengths will look a little bit different from the strengths of our past opponents.”

The Bears’ final test of the tournament will be against No. 11 Arizona, who already beat UCLA and Washington this season, though the Wildcats have also recorded three losses.

Arizona has a strong history with Cal. Like the Huskies, the Wildcats swept the Bears in conference play last year and helped knock them out of the Pac-12 championships early on. Their matchup this weekend will show how far the Bears have come since then — or how far they haven’t.

Cal beach volleyball had similar early success last season with an 8-0 record, before they took four straight losses to teams including UCLA and USC. This weekend Cal beach volleyball adds a few more teams to its task list.

As they attempt to prove their strength and determination, the Bears may just manage to check a box or two.

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