Cal finish weekend in San Diego with mixed results

Eugene W. Lau/File
Correy Johnson was one of two key starters who sat out at this past weekend's Aztec Invitational.

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The Cal volleyball team started their season by burning the competition in a sweep against Delaware on Saturday afternoon. Yet the No. 17 Bears’ fire quickly fizzled as they lost to San Diego State, splitting their opening weekend at the Aztec Invitational.

Since both games were held on the same day, the fatigued Bears (1-1) fell, 3-2, to the Aztecs (25-22, 20-25, 25-17, 15-25, 15-11).  Meanwhile, the matchup was the first of the day for a fresher San Diego State.

Nevertheless, the loss was a major disappointment for a young Cal team that hopes to reach the high standards of a NCAA finals appearance set by former stars two short years ago.The Bears dominated in the first match with a three-set sweep of the Blue Hens. Delaware’s outside hitter Alissa Alker, who is the active leader in kills, managed just six against the Bears. Outside hitter Adrienne Gehan alone tripled that number against Delaware.

Likewise, the younger players’ contribution against the Blue Hens was enough for the victory. Freshman Lara Vukasovic contributed six kills in her debut. Sophomore Chrstina Higgins, who was a Pac-12 All-Freshman honoree last season, added seven kills.

Despite a strong early showing, Cal struggled to maintain the momentum throughout the day. Coach Feller had to make some tactical decisions in order to replace injured upperclassmen in libero Robin Rostratter and opposite Correy Johnson — with new starters in freshmen Nikki Gombar, Mary McKennon, and Vukasovic.

Those absences gave the team’s youth a more prominent place on the court this weekend as McKennon contributed 23 digs. But Adrienne Gehan also stepped up for the upperclassmen. The junior led the Bears in both their games with 21 kills against the Aztecs and 18 against Delaware.

Yet Gehan’s dominance on the court couldn’t compensate for the offensive holes Cal needed to fill. According to Feller, the Bears particularly struggled with their passing; but statistically, Cal was fairly even with San Diego State.

It was the failure to dominate in any aspect of the game that kept the Bears from executing a weekend sweep.

“We lost a little momentum when we made a few little errors here and there,” Feller said. “We were not able to offensively put them at a disadvantage.”

The Bears’ attack failed to match the Aztecs’ commanding offensive game. San Diego State’s Michelle Waber led her squad with 20 kills and was followed closely by teammate Andrea Hannasch, who made 19. Meanwhile, Gehan’s teammates fell short: typically high-scoring Higgins and Vukasovic, only had 11 kills apiece. For a team that lost a scorer as crucial as Tarah Murrey last year, spreading the offense will be key. But Cal struggled to achieve a wider offense against the Aztecs.

“We always learn from every match, win or lose,” Feller said. “We just learn a few different lessons when we lose.”

The Bears will need to focus on team building as the Pac-12 league unfolds next month. Cal will be on the road next week to Hawaii for the Wahine Volleyball Classic.