The Cal volleyball team is losing its most impactful player in Adrienne Gehan. But it’s hard to imagine the Bears not doing better than last season, when they advanced to the second round of the NCAAs.
Cal started out the preseason and regular season hot, going 17-8 overall and 10-6 in the Pac-12 through the first 25 games. Gehan and Higgins were having all-American-esque seasons and were firing from all cylinders. In a game against Colorado, Gehan and Higgins set a career high in kills with 22 and 20, respectively. Gehan was red-hot that game, hitting at a .436 percentage, while Higgins converted at a slightly lower rate of .381. Led by their senior leader in Gehan, the Bears were clicking as a unit leading to them beating better teams. But things took a turn for the worse when Gehan went down with a strained ab muscle.
With their floor general down, Cal ended the last stretch of the season on a five-game losing streak. The Bears were free-falling with no apparent end in sight. They slid from a respectable third place in the Pac-12 to the mediocre fifth-place slot. To make things worse for Cal, it drew North Carolina in the first round of the NCAAs, the team that eliminated it two years running.
“We lost a couple really close matches to Washington, Oregon and Stanford where if we had a full squad, maybe those would have been different,” said head coach Rich Feller.
When all the pairings for the first round of the NCAAs were decided, many expected the results to be the same as the two years prior, when the Tar Heels ravaged the Bears. Cal came in as heavy favorites the first year against a North Carolina team that couldn’t crack the top-25 but proceeded to upset the Bears in five sets. The same would happen the following year to Cal. But this season, with Cal reeling from five straight defeats and the loss of its leader on and off the court and everything on the line, the Bears rose to the occasion to sweep the Tar Heels in three sets.
But in the second round of the tournament, Cal was matched up against the hottest team in the country with Wisconsin on its home floor. Unsurprisingly, the Badgers ran away with the match, sweeping the Bears and ending their season in humiliating fashion.
Despite losing Gehan, as well as co-captain Michelle Neumayr and Lindsey Parrot, the Bears start training camp as an overall stronger unit. After sitting out the 2011 and 2012 seasons due to ACL tears, Neumayr made the decision to retire from college volleyball and will be sorely missed for her presence off the court. But with other players stepping into leadership roles, the team projects to be more balanced than last season.
“We went one step further than the year before,” Feller said. “We sustained some gruesome injuries but still won some big games and lost some close ones and ended up with a nice record. We kind of springboarded ourselves to being prepared to go one step further this year.”
An all-American last season, Higgins returns at either the outside hitter or opposite positions, while all-conference middle blocker/outside hitter Lara Vukasovic returns for her third year as a starter. Meanwhile, the Bears return their libero and defensive specialist for their second and third years respectively. In addition to Higgins and Vukasovic, Cal also boasts middle blocker Lillian Schonewise, who just played with the Pac-12 all-star team in China.
With 19 players on the roster, there’s more competition for positions on the team than ever. In addition to the two outside hitters, there’s also the setter position up for grabs. If Vukasovic moves from middle blocker to one of the outside hitters, then that leaves four positions up in the air for Feller to decide. In a Pac-12 conference saturated with strong volleyball programs, every position has to improve for Cal to make a run at the Pac-12 title and the NCAA tournament.
“Honestly, I think we’re going to be a better team at the end of the year this year than we were at the end of the year last year,” Feller said.
Losing a player to graduation or injury isn’t as big of a deal in volleyball as it is in other sports, even if the player is a superstar like Gehan. One player can’t carry a team like in basketball, so it’s more significant to focus on the sum of the individual parts than on one part itself.
“Volleyball is a game of a lot of really good players, as opposed to one superstar just ’cause you can’t always get that one superstar the ball. You have to have a squad of really good players, and that’s what we’re striving for.”
Cal may not feature any “superstar” players next season, but it will boast eight or nine really good players. Whether or not that can carry the Bears beyond the round of 32 is how those components fit together.
Winston Cho is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho