Chemistry often evokes images of lab coats, beakers and acids, but No. 12 Cal beach volleyball is changing that norm. Stronger than hydrogen bonding, the players’ connection to each other on the courts will be the Bears’ greatest asset going into the Pac-12 Championship as the No. 3 seed.
The three-day tournament at Stanford has a double-elimination format that will keep teams in the running for the championship title even after suffering a loss.
Cal will begin the tournament with a Thursday dual against Washington. The No. 6-seeded Huskies beat the Bears, 3-2, at the Pac-12 North Tournament after falling 5-0 in their previous encounter.
Heading into the weekend with an even series record, the match should be entertaining. But if the Bears enter the dual treating it as if they are playing USC or Stanford, they can certainly come out ahead against a weaker foe on paper.
Although Cal has shown that it’s capable of beating teams such as the Trojans, the Bears have discounted programs such as Arizona and Washington after beating them the first time around.
“Every team now has an extensive body of work under their belt now,” said Cal head coach Meagan Owusu. “When we face opponents that we have played, we will expect stronger and better teams, just as we have improved.”
Should the Bears topple the Huskies, they will advance to play the winner of the USC-Arizona State showdown between No. 2 and No. 7 seeds, respectively. Cal defeated Arizona State both times the teams met this season, but has an even record with USC, the No. 5-ranked team in the nation. The Bears fell to the Trojans, 3-2, before beating them by the same difference a few weeks later.
Owusu may maintain her new lineup that proved successful in last Saturday’s 3-2 win over Stanford, although it’s unclear whether separating the freshman pair of Mima Mirkovic and Alexia Inman will be beneficial throughout the tournament. While Mirkovic and senior Jessica Gaffney had chemistry on the court despite never pairing together, Inman and sophomore Iya Lindahl struggled against the Cardinal.
In both of their matches against the Trojans, Mirkovic and Inman fell to USC’s Tina Graudina and Abril Bustamante, the third-ranked No. 1 pair in the nation. Pitting Mirkovic and Gaffney on the No. 1 court could again prove to be a useful strategy.
If the Bears are to win again, they will likely face No. 1 UCLA in the semifinals Friday morning, provided the Bruins aren’t upset by the first two teams they play. UCLA has not drifted far from its No. 1 ranking throughout the entirety of the season and is in line to win both the Pac-12 and NCAA championship events.
Cal will have to play its best possible game to take down UCLA, but that isn’t to say it can’t be done. If the Bears have told their fans anything this season, it’s that their team is capable of exceeding all expectations.
The final dual of the tournament will be played Saturday afternoon. The Bears have struggled during long weekends that consist of four matches in past tournaments this year, and will have to muster up energy to stay strong should they make it to Saturday.
“This week leading up to the tournament we are going light with practice,” Owusu said. “The team has done enough work and enough reps to be prepared for this weekend. We are backing off on the training so they feel fresh for the weekend.”
The Pac-12 championships will undoubtedly be the Bears’ toughest tournament, but it will be their best opportunity to prove the power of chemistry in addition to talent and dedication.
Surina Khurana covers beach volleyball. Contact her at [email protected].