Three sets deep against Air Force, the Cal volleyball team trailed two sets to one, in danger of losing a match against an unranked team in its first tournament of the season. The Bears looked as if they would return home with a blemish already on their record.
But with the count knotted up at 10-10 in the fourth set, veteran middle blocker Lara Vukasovic took control of the match with strong serving, leading to five consecutive points for Cal. The Bears never looked back after taking the lead in the fourth set, quickly finishing off the Falcons 15-10 in the fifth and final set.
In their first tournament of the season, the Bears (3-0) were tested against three unranked teams at the Falcon Classic but departed with an undefeated record. Along the way, they defeated SIU-Edwardsville, Winthrop and Air Force.
In an attempt to stop Vukasovic after a dominant showing against Winthrop the day prior, Air Force doubled up on her to minimize her scoring opportunities. But because of the increased focus on Vukasovic, prized freshman recruit and outside hitter Ashten Smith-Gooden took advantage, registering 17 kills on a .467 hitting percentage.
With Vukasovic crowded in the middle, other players were forced to step up to compensate for the lack of offense. With so much focus on the middle blocker, however, the outside hitters had plenty of room to operate with prime scoring opportunities.
Rust and inexperience proved to be a factor, as many of the players weren’t having much success off the pins despite the increased focus on Vukasovic. But Smith-Gooden, recruited as the No. 5 senior Ace in the nation, was finally able to put some balls away for Cal. Fellow freshman recruit Christine Alftin also impressed with 16 kills, 12 digs and four blocks.
Behind the freshman duo and Vukasovic’s serving, the Bears were able to regain the lead, outlasting the Falcons in a five-set thriller, 25-22, 18-25, 19-25, 25-18, 15-10.
Cal similarly struggled to play with focus and intensity out of the gate the day prior against Winthrop. After defeating SIU-Edwardsville on Friday in three sets, 25-18, 25-17, 25-17, the Bears dropped their first set against the Eagles 19-25.
Winthrop came out with a quick-paced offense that was unfamiliar to the Bears. After handily taking the first set, the Eagles proceeded to stage a comeback late in the second when it appeared as if Cal was steadily in control of the match. With the lead cut down to 22-20, the middle-blocker tandem of Vukasovic and Lillian Schonewise put the set away for the Bears but needed three set points to do it.
The third and fourth sets proved to be similarly competitive, with Winthrop staying within striking distance all match long. After trailing 17-11 in the third set, the Eagles surged back to tie it up again at 18-18. But Cal was able to score the final four points of the match after taking the lead, 21-20. The fourth and clinching set followed the same script as the third with Cal scoring the final four of five points to take the match, 19-25, 25-22, 25-20, 25-22.
The Falcon Classic allowed coach Rich Feller to see what his team must improve on in the following weeks for the Bears to stay competitive in the top volleyball conference in the country. With a strong nucleus of returning veterans surrounded by as strong of a recruiting class as any team’s in the nation, Cal must build upon these narrow victories and play with the same intensity and focus all match long.
Winston Cho covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho