Cal sand volleyball falls to Sac State but topples Cal Poly in thriller

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Maddy Kerr (left) and Nikki Gombar (right) celebrate during Cal's match against UOP.

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In every match so far this season, Nikki Gombar has jogged onto the sand volleyball court with four bright strips of athletic tape on her right shoulder.

Gombar, a sophomore, played all 31 matches of indoor volleyball her freshman year in 2012. But last offseason, she started to experience some pain in her right shoulder. Gombar thought she could play through it as long as she iced it regularly and did T-band exercises to keep it strong. But overuse took its toll on her swinging shoulder.

“I just destroyed it,” Gombar said. “At one point, I couldn’t lift it up anymore.”

Gombar had surgery last April and had to redshirt her sophomore season. Now, a year after the surgery, it’s difficult to even tell that she is still recovering, except for those strips of neon tape. Gombar put on a powerful display Saturday, often spiking the ball with enough force to leave her opponents helpless and the crowd cheering.

Gombar and her teammate, Maddy Kerr, won both of their matches as the Bears (3-5) narrowly fell to Sac State, 3-2, in the morning before topping Cal Poly (1-7) in the afternoon, 3-2.

Against Sac State (2-6), with the match tied 2-2, Cal needed just a few more points from Sarah Cole and Lara Vukasovic playing on court one to secure a win. But the duo fell by just three points in a tiebreaking third set, which clinched the match for the Hornets. Against Cal Poly, the Bears found themselves in an 0-2 hole early but were able to win the final three matches to complete the comeback.

Gombar and Kerr were instrumental in the improbable comeback. Kerr, a libero on the indoor team, is naturally talented at digging the ball. And when she puts one in just the right position for her teammate, the fireworks start to fly. Gombar can take one of Kerr’s well-placed balls and crush it over the net. Her hitting can be simply unreturnable, breaking an opponent’s defense.

As powerful as her hitting is, Gombar’s recovery process is not yet complete. If she hits a ball to the outside of her shoulder, she can tweak it, causing pain. There is always that lingering fear that Gombar could overuse her arm again, requiring another surgery.

“I was very scared at the beginning (of the season),” Gombar said. “I’m still kind of scared because I still feel pain sometimes when I hit. But I can’t not play.”

Playing with their backs against the wall, Gombar and Kerr quickly topped their opponent to keep the Bears in the match. After a tight first set, the duo pummeled through the second, winning 21-19, 21-7.

This left the No. 2 duo of Vukasovic and Cole, along with the No. 1 pair of Adrienne Gehan and Joan Caloiaro, to finish off the improbable upset. The two duos, who rotate turns playing at the top court, had little problem with their respective opponents. Cole and Vukasovic cruised to a 21-11, 21-9, win while Caloiaro and Gehan won their match, 21-17, 21-12, just minutes later to clinch the win over Cal Poly.

“Definitely a nice comeback,” said head coach Rich Feller. “A nice recovery. Our ones, twos and threes really are getting it, really starting to figure out how to play this game.”

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