Young Bears face grueling weekend in San Diego

Eugene W. Lau/File

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Two years ago, the Cal women’s volleyball team was the Pac-10 champion and advanced to the finals of the NCAA tournament. Just one year later the Bears finished third in the newly minted Pac-12 and couldn’t advance past the second round of the NCAAs.

Fast forward to this year, which looks like the polar opposite of Cal’s former glory. The Bears are predicted to finish in the middle of the table in the Pac-12 as they set to open their first game against Delaware this Saturday at 1 p.m. in San Diego.

“We’re young and we’re on the road,” Coach Rich Feller said. “We expect this to be a tougher competition than it appears on paper.”

Last year the Blue Hens, led by outside hitter Alissa Alker, an All-CAA first team selection, reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. The team also won the Colonial Athletic Association, their fourth conference title in the last five years.

Despite the differences in the level of play of each conference, there seems to be a battle at hand for Cal this weekend. After 15 days of morning lifts and afternoons spent training, the team is ready to see an opponent on the other side of the net.

“We’ve been really working hard in double days,” Feller said. “The legs will come back and the spirits will come back, it’s time for business.”

The tilt against the Blue Hens is the first of two in the Aztec Invitational. The Bears won’t have time to rest as they face San Diego State at 7 p.m. the same day.

“We’re going to practice before our flight on Friday morning,” Feller said. “And then that second game is really going to double the intensity on Saturday.”

Cal was unable to survive the grueling preseason trainings unscathed. The Bears suffered injuries to two key starters in senior libero Robin Rostratter and senior opposite Corey Johnson. Rostratter broke the school record when she was a junior last year for the number of single-season digs with 571, and that presence on the court this weekend will be missed.

Both Pac-12 honorable mentions don’t look to be sidelined for more than a week or two, but that just means that it is now going to be up to the new blood to provide the kickstart in their Cal debuts.

“Of course as freshmen we have to bring the water cart and things like that,” freshmen Nikki Gombar said. “But we’ve learned a lot from the older girls and they’re expecting a lot from us.”

Gombar, who hails from Rome, and fellow newcomer Mary McKennon from Newport Beach, Calif., have impressed thus far in practices and are likely to start in Saturday’s games.

It won’t be an entire roster of inexperience, however. Redshirt senior middle hitter Shannon Hawari will play a major role, especially after the departure of star outside hitter Tarah Murrey.

“It’s going to look different,” Feller said. “We’re always on a little bit on edge when it comes to that, but we’re also very excited.”