Two years ago, the No. 10 Bears entered the NCAA Tournament as heavy favorites against a UNC squad that couldn’t crack the top 25.
But in that match, the Cal volleyball team succumbed to issues that plagued the team all season: inconsistent offense and a lack of focus on defense. The Bears fell in five sets to the Tar Heels, ending Cal’s season.
That loss was followed by another loss to UNC the next year, again in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. So when the Bears drew the Tar Heels in the first round for a third consecutive year this season, it looked like the script would be the same.
Cal, losers of five straight, entered the NCAA Tournament against a Tar Heel squad that had lost fewer than that all year. The No. 22 Tar Heels were expected to send the Bears packing for a third consecutive year. But that didn’t happen. Cal lit up the UNC team Friday night en route to a three-set sweep, (25-20, 25-18, 25-20).
It was a little bit of revenge for the Cal team after the last two years of frustrating losses, although Cal coach Rich Feller did not see it that way.
“Getting past the first round was the biggest accomplishment regardless of who the opponent was,” Feller said.
The Tar Heels simply had no answer for the Bears’ balanced attack. In most matches this season, outside hitter Adrienne Gehan and opposite hitter Christina Higgins have been unstoppable for the Bears. While those two stars got their touches in this match, it was Lara Vukasovic and Michelle Neumayr who carried the brunt of the load.
Vukasovic’s season hitting percentage of .342 was good for eighth in the Pac-12 and led the Bears. In this match, she hit .500 with 10 kills while adding six blocks.
Neumayr, meanwhile, does not have the gaudy season statistics Vukasovic can boast. The redshirt sophomore is playing in her first games for Cal after missing the last two seasons with consecutive ACL tears. Throughout the year, she has been a defensive force for the Bears, often racking up digs in the backcourt, but her hitting has lacked power. Slowly, she has been improving throughout the season, and Friday was her breakout match. Neumayr led the Bears with 11 kills off .391 hitting.
Cal as a whole hit an impressive .411, while UNC had no answer for the Cal offense. Only UNC’s Paige Neuenfeldt could keep pace with the Bears’ attack, as she added 13 kills off a ridiculous .667 hitting. But the UNC team as a whole hit just .255 and committed 21 errors to just seven for the Bears.
“We were able to get in our system a lot,” Feller said. “We got a lot of players involved and that kept (UNC) off balance.”
To put that .255 for UNC into context, no Bear with more than one kill attempt hit under that percentage for the Bears.
The match picked up in intensity in the third set. UNC was clinging on to its NCAA life; Cal was trying to put away an upset two years in the making.
In the end, the Bears won out. A cross-court shot from Michelle Neumayr clinched the set and the match for Cal, sending the team to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years.
Contact Riley McAtee at [email protected]