Eight freshmen make up the recruiting class joining the four returning starters for the Cal volleyball team this year. Inexperience floods the roster. But this same inexperience fosters competition to fill the void of lost veteran leadership.
In their season opener, the Bears trek to Colorado to take part in the Air Force tournament from Friday to Sunday. They will take on SIU-Edwardsville, Winthrop and Air Force over the course of the three-day tournament.
Captaining the ship for Cal is senior opposite hitter Christina Higgins, who ranked ninth in the Pac-12 with 3.52 kills per set last season and is returning for her fourth year as a starter. Alongside her will be veteran middle blockers Lara Vukasovic and Lillian Schonewise. Creating scoring opportunities for them will be sophomore setter Alyssa Jensen.
“Our keys are definitely to learn as we go,” Higgins said. “We don’t have scouting information on the first team that we play. So just being smart, learning as we go and kind of coming out with a lot of energy and enthusiasm.”
Cal’s offensive strength lies primarily in its middle attacking, which is dependent on the core of its returning starters.
From the first touch, Cal must get the setter the ball to create scoring opportunities for the middle blockers and Higgins. But for that to happen, the Bears must focus on ball control, namely passing and serving. The execution of setting teammates up for easy kills lies solely on communication.
Playing on the same page is key for the Bears’ ball control and controlling the middle of the court, allowing the middles and Cal’s strongest offensive player, Higgins, to get scoring chances. From the serve to the pass that sets up the kill, Cal must play as a unit, and communication will be the deciding factor.
“If you don’t have communication, you’re probably not going to execute very well, because there will be miscommunications or misconnections,” said head coach Rich Feller. “I think that’s important early in the season in particular.”
As for the competition, this will be Cal’s first time playing each of the three teams it is facing at the Air Force tournament. Because of this, Feller stressed to his team the importance of what the Bears do on their side of the court, not the opponent’s.
The team as a whole lacks game experience, as eight of the 19 players are freshmen and have never played a collegiate match in their lives. There will be two inexperienced outside hitters, and five players are fighting for two defensive specialist spots. The defensive specialist plays an important role in hitting out-of-system balls when passing isn’t perfect. This new, inexperienced player at the defensive specialist position may just be the key in getting the leg up in long rallies.
“Roles aren’t set in stone yet,” Feller said. “The roles have been cultivated up to this point. Once you get into the heat of competition, they either change because people haven’t been matching those roles, or they get solidified. I think after this weekend and probably the second weekend, it’ll be a little more defined, because we’ll have six matches under our belt.”
Winston Cho covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho