Tight third set not enough to turn Cal’s tide

Michael Tao/File
The Cal volleyball team fell in straight sets to Stanford Wednesday evening in Maples Pavilion in Stanford, Calif.

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Cal women’s volleyball head coach Rich Feller knew exactly what Stanford was going to bring to the table in the Big Spike in Stanford’s Maples Pavilion on Thursday night.

Three straight sets later, the No. 6 Cardinal never strayed from their original strategy and emerged victorious (25-15, 25-17, 28-26).

The Cal scouting report had been spot-on; Stanford (9-2,1-0) was going to hit short balls when Cal put up its blocks or find openings for strikes. The Bears (6-5, 0-1) failed to execute their game plan of using their off-blocker to search out those short balls and dropped their Pac-12 opener as a consequence.

“We knew what they were going to do, they did it, and we couldn’t do anything about it,” Feller said. “That’s extremely frustrating.”

In what proved to be another vexing night in a challenging early season for the Bears, a slow start became the ultimate downfall for Cal.

Cal took the court in front of 2,011 unfamiliar fans, knowing full well what Stanford was going to try to do. Yet as had become a recurring problem, Cal came out flat-footed and failed to take advantage of its pregame preparations.

Stanford came out firing, jumping on the Bears 6-1 in the first set and quickly stretching the lead to 15-6. The Cardinal were not doing anything unexpected, they were simply executing their short ball shots and Cal was not snuffing it out.

“The separation they got at the beginning was all it took to win that first set,” Feller said.

Stellar passing by Stanford led to openings for powerful strikes from Cardinal outside hitters. Cal was slow to react to Stanford’s ball movement and suffered as a result.

Although Cal was able to pull within five at 20-15 in the first frame, the energy they had accumulated during that 9-5 stretch vanished shortly after.

“We didn’t maintain momentum when we had chances and we didn’t regain it when we had chances,” Feller said.

The second set was initially closer than the first, in large part due to Cal outside hitter Christina Higgins. Higgins notched a kill to tie the game up at 5-5 while providing effective sets on many other points.

Stanford once again began to create some distance between itself and the Bears. Back-to-back kills by Higgins brought the team to within six at 19-13, but Stanford’s balance of short and powerful shots would prove to be too much, helping the Cardinal to a 25-17 set victory.

The third set was a down-to-the-wire battle, with neither team establishing more than a three-point lead. Cal seemed more in aware of Stanford set pieces and their game benefitted as a result.

“Tactically we became more aware of what the game situations were and were able to react better,” Feller said. “Paid more attention, became more aware.”

Cal’s sixth point came from a blistering strike from Shannon Hawari, an emphatic statement from the Bear’s side. It was the beginning of a strong frame from Hawari, who took advantage of Stanford’s focus on Corey Johnson.

“Stanford shut (Johnson) down because they were keying on her and she wasn’t finding her rhythm,” Feller said. “(Hawari) was a little more open.”

Stanford led at 24-23 and had only one more point to complete the sweep. However, a service error and a kill by Cal’s Adrienne Gehan swung the tables in the Bears’ favor.

However, a Cal service error knotted the game back up and Stanford was able to close out the last two points.

“There was a lot of frustration in the locker room afterwards,” Feller said. “They didn’t change their lineup or empty their bench. If we had played the way we did in set three in sets one and two we might still be playing.”