Cal faces Utah in vital game for NCAA hopes

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The situation is simple: Sitting at a mediocre 14-14 overall record, the Cal women’s volleyball team has two games left. Teams need at least a .500 record to be considered for the NCAA tournament.

The squad will end the season against No. 1 Stanford on Nov. 23, a game in which Cal will be the underdog. On Monday at 8 p.m. in Haas Pavillion, Cal (14-14, 8-10) plays Utah — the second worst place team in the Pac-12 — in the former’s penultimate game.

While an inferior Utah (13-18, 4-14) provides the best chance for the Bears to get the 15th victory, a win is much easier said than done.

“Their record is very misleading,” coach Rich Feller said. “This is a team that would normally be winning their conference if they weren’t in the Pac-12.”

The Utes are currently in the midst of a 1-5 slide in the Pac-12, but three of the games were against top-five teams in the conference. Although the Utes were defeated, the team won at least one set in all of the contests.

Against No. 5 UCLA and No. 6 Washington amidst the slump, Utah pushed them to the brink, losing both matches in five sets, 3-2.

“They sound a lot like us, almost winning in five sets and just missing out on huge wins,” Feller said.

The Utes’ similarity with the Bears extends past disappointing losses. Both squads have excelled at blocking this year with help from their impressive middle blockers.

Cal sits fourth in the Pac-12 with an average of 2.88 blocks per set lead by senior Kat Brown, who is now six short of the all-time Cal record held by Ellen Orchard with 504 in her career.

Utah ranks second in the Pac-12 with 3 blocks per set. Sophomore Bailey Bateman’s has been a stone wall on the front line, posting an impressive 1.57 blocks per set.

“They are one of the best blocking teams in the conference,” Feller said. “That is going to provide a tremendous challenge for us.”

Defensively, Cal and Utah’s success stems from the ability to block.

Offensively, the teams couldn’t be more different.

The Utes run a two-setter offense, much like Arizona — a team Cal has swept this year. Despite the fact that the Bears have already faced a two-setter offense, Utah still remains a mystery in the first season meeting between the teams.

“It’s strange that we don’t see this team all year and then you see them one time,” Feller said.

Going into the matchup with Utah, Cal is trying to recover from a disappointing five-set loss at the hands of the No. 8 USC.

“I said the same thing after USC did after Washington, we let an opportunity slip away,” Feller said.

Considering the situation, the Bears cannot let the game slip away. In years past, a game against the Utes at this point would be used to further impress the selection committee.

Not this season. Cal is playing to stay alive.

“Unlike other years where dropping a few matches at the end will affect our seeding, we still knew we are going to get into the tournament,” Feller said. “This year, it’s different.”

Austin Crochetiere covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]