Cal volleyball prepares for Utah’s two-setter offense

Alex Turney/Staff

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The Cal volleyball team — predicted to finish seventh in the Pac-12 — has established itself as a team that can upset anyone in the conference and the country.

The Bears swept Colorado on Wednesday night in a match that was never very close. The Buffaloes, although unranked themselves, previously toppled then-No. 1 Washington. Meanwhile, the Bears’ last two matches before Wednesday featured a convincing sweep of then-No. 16 UCLA and an excruciatingly close five-set loss to USC, which is now the No. 1 team in the country.

The Bears (10-4, 3-2 Pac-12) are looking to continue that run of impressive play when they take on Utah (13-3, 2-2) on Sunday night.

The challenge for the Bears will be dealing with Utah’s two-setter offense. Unlike most volleyball teams, which use only one setter, the Utes use both junior Kalee Kirby and sophomore Kendall Cygan to run their offense. This allows the team to attack with three front-row players while keeping the Cal defense on its toes.

This style of play forces defenses into commit blocking — where defensive blockers have to follow one player along the net as if they are playing man-to-man defense. In order to be successful against this attack, the Bears will have to effectively react to the setter who receives the ball.

“You have to be really good at reading the setter,” said Cal coach Rich Feller. “Recognizing the pass, finding the setter and reading her body posture and reacting to to where she does set, as opposed to guessing.”

Leading the way for the Bears on defense is middle blocker Lara Vukasovic, who is averaging 1.28 blocks per set. Cal’s other middle blocker — Lillian Schonewise — also has .78 per set. Meanwhile opposite hitter Christina Higgins, who plays almost exclusively in the front row, is averaging .83. The pressure will be on those players to successfully read the Utes’ setters and react.

When a ball does get through the Bears’ blockers, freshman Maddy Kerr will be waiting. Cal’s libero is currently averaging a team-best 3.17 digs per set. The Bears also have four other players who are averaging more than two in a year in which Feller has emphasized the passing game.

“It always starts with a pass,” he said.

After a successful pass, the next step for the Bears will rely on setter Joan Caloiaro. Effective setting by the senior will open up the Cal offense.

“Joan has to really set an intelligent match,” Feller said. “That will allow our hitters to be freed up for really good swings.”

From there, hitters Adrienne Gehan and Christina Higgins, who are averaging 4.5 and 3.3 kills per set, respectively, will have a chance to finish the play and win a point for the Bears.

Based on Cal’s recent play, the team should be able to execute effectively and will be the favorite over the Utes. But every team in the Pac-12 provides a challenge, and the Bears always see room for improvement.

“We’ve got a long ways to go,” Feller said. “We’re a good team right now. But we have a long ways to go before we are a very, very good team.”

Riley McAtee covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @riley_mcatee