After the Cal volleyball team’s practice on Tuesday, coach Rich Feller was beaming.
The team ended the practice with a six-on-six scrimmage, never letting its communication or energy waver. Players were diving for every ball, even ones that were well out of reach. Hitters and blockers were going up with extra vigor, and the chatter echoed in the otherwise empty Haas Pavilion.
Feller was still smiling a few hours after the practice ended.
“There was a real good spirit from among the team, and a great work ethic and a great sense of purpose,” Feller said. “No residuals from a bad weekend.”
Following consecutive five-set losses to Oregon State and Oregon, Feller and his coaching staff added new twists in practice to force the team to reengage mentally in practice. While he was pleased with the results early in the week, the real test will be at 7 p.m. on Friday night at Maples Pavilion when the No. 10 Bears take on No. 6 Stanford.
In some ways, Friday’s 7 p.m. match may resemble Cal’s practice. As their records may indicate, the Cardinal (21-6, 15-6 in the Pac-12) and the Bears (25-6, 15-6) are incredibly close statistically. Cal is barely outhitting Stanford, .263 to .246, averaging 13.99 kills per set compared to the Cardinal’s 13.90. Both offenses run primarily through the top outside hitter, with Stanford sophomore Rachel Williams notching just four fewer kills this season than Cal’s standout Tarah Murrey.
“We’re both really patterned teams,” middle hitter Kat Brown said. “But they run different things on offense.”
The Cardinal’s other weapon of choice is middle hitter Carly Wopat, who is third in the Pac-12 in hitting percentage with a .383 rate. Setter Karissa Cook tends not to get her other hitters nearly as involved in the attack as Wopat and Williams.
Cal setter Elly Barrett, meanwhile, runs a more diversified offense, getting opposite side hitter Correy Johnson into the mix with her athletic move to the right side.
But both defenses have to get the ball to their respective setters, which Feller said could be a turning point in the match.
“Anybody could win, really,” Feller said. “If they pass really well, we’re probably in trouble. If we pass really well, they’re in trouble. If both of us pass about the way we pass, it’s going to be a standoff ‘til the end.”
The two squads’ last meeting wasn’t much of a contest, with the Bears battering the Cardinal for a 3-1 victory (23-25, 25-16, 25-16, 25-21). However, that meeting was over two months ago, and now the stakes are higher.
Friday’s meeting marks the final conference match of the season, with the NCAA Selection Show taking place on Sunday. While both squads assuredly will make the tournament, both are jockeying for better seeding and some momentum heading into the postseason.
“Especially coming off last weekend, it’d be good to boost our confidence again and come out with a big win against a good team,” sophomore Adrienne Gehan said.
The key to obtaining that victory, according to Brown, is to play with the same fire the squad demonstrated in practice.
“The high energy and communication is part of our identity, and that’s how we stay in control of matches, even if they are close,” Brown said.