Cal looks to adjust without star Murrey

Eugene W. Lau/File
Middle hitter Shannon Hawari finished the 2011 year second in kills behind standout Tarah Murrey, who graduated last year.
The 2011 Cal volleyball team started its season ranked second in the fiercely competitive Pac-12 conference. After a Pac-10 title and an appearance in the 2010 NCAA championship, the Bears felt confident they could reproduce the same success.
If the team’s current sixth-place ranking in the most recent Pac-12 coaches’ poll is any indicator, the 2011 season didn’t go quite as planned. The team suffered a surprising loss to North Carolina in the first round of NCAA tournament last year, a final nail in the coffin plagued by season-long problems.
But middle of the pack is almost a relief when compared to last season’s dogfight that left the Bears reeling. In fact, it is exactly where coach Rich Feller wants his team.

“I’d much rather be looking to move up than fighting to stay at the top right now,” he said. “I think the last couple years we’ve fought to stay at the top. We did a good job of it, but this year it’s better for our team to fight our way back to the top.”

Given the adjustments the Bears need to make this year and the disappointments of last season, Feller might be right. The Bears are a young team that faces some serious changes in its lineup and strategy due to the loss of key offensive contributors over the last two seasons.

But it remains a question whether Cal’s younger talent will be sufficient to fill the shoes of Tarah Murrey, who was responsible for more than a quarter of all the Bears’ kills last year.

The graduation of Murrey leaves a major hole in the Bears’ offense. The outside hitter led the team in kills with 475, averaging 4.20 per set, 202 more kills more than the next team leader.

“We have a chance to spread the offense a little bit more,” Feller said. “You lose somebody that’s a superstar, you lose a lot of the kills and the points that she made, but you have a chance to maybe spread things around a little bit, so that’s what we’ll try to do.”

In addition to Murrey, Cal also lost outside hitter Michelle Neumayr to a torn ACL before fall practice even started. Neumayr, a redshirt freshman, had not yet played for Cal but was touted as one of the best outside hitters in the nation at Burlingame High School.

“Those are two huge losses,” said senior middle hitter Shannon Hawari. “Not only offensively with Tarah and Michelle, but passing. Both of them were really crucial passers for us, but we have a lot of people that are stepping up, and we’re really deep in that position.”

The Bears hope that this particular depth turnover will provide some salvation and some experience for the underclassmen this season. While senior libero Robin Rostratter recovers from a minor injury, freshman Mary McKennon and sophomore Marlee Davis will be filling her big shoes.

Despite losing key players to graduation or injuries, the veteran members of the team believe that offense won’t be the biggest problem. Hawari expressed concerns about the passing skills lost in the last year. Fellow senior Kat Brown worries the communication between the back row defense and blockers is not up to par.
All these growing pains to adjust with a young team mean senior leadership will be more crucial than anything. The squad will need to integrate the youth while keeping its consistency on the court.
“There’s no question we have the talent on our team, so it’s really just a matter of us coming together and getting that chemistry and that rhythm down with each other,” Hawari said.