Cal volleyball looks to establish identity in first home matches of season

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On Friday, the eight new faces that make up the freshman recruiting class for the Cal volleyball team will be looking up at the rafters of Haas Pavilion for the first home match of their careers. With two new recruits already inserted into the starting lineup, head coach Rich Feller has one goal in mind — finding his team’s identity as quickly as possible.

The Bears will take part in the Molten Classic, playing three teams on back-to-back days starting Friday. They open against Pacific the first day and play Nevada the next morning, ending the tournament against UCSB in the evening.

“I’m not sure we have a strength just yet in any one area,” Feller said “I think we’re pretty good or above average in some. I would love to see our strength become we’re the best passing team or the best serving team or best defensive team.”

Feller came into the season with tempered expectations, realizing that his young team would need time to develop and gain an identity. But match by match, set by set, the team’s returning starters and promising recruits, most notably Ashten Smith-Gooden and Christine Alftin, have gained gain experience.

“We’re still trying to solidify our lineup,” Feller said. “Get experience to the players that are going to have to go through the heat and cauldron of the Pac-12. And get everyone more comfortable playing at a high level for longer periods of time.”

Thrown into the fire by Feller, Smith-Gooden and Alftin have played up to or beyond expectations every match. In the Bears’ sweep of North Dakota State, Alftin contributed nine kills, behind only middle blocker Lillian Schonewise’s 11. Earlier that day, Alftin also put up 15 kills in a loss to Radford, with Smith-Gooden adding 14 kills of her own.

Setting Alftin and Smith-Gooden up is setter Alyssa Jensen. As a regular starter for the first time in her career, Jensen is tasked with dictating the tempo of the rally by carefully placing passes to her middle blockers or outside hitters for kills.

“Our offense is pretty strong,” Jensen said. “I know we have some newbies on the outside, but having two strong middles and Christine (Alftin) on the outside makes it fun. I trust everyone as my hitters.”

But hitting a workable pass to set up the kill is much easier said than done. The best teams are able to play “small ball” — difficult-to-handle passes that the team must translate into an executable play — effectively. Playing good small ball is largely dependent on the setter’s ability to place out of system balls where the outside hitters or middle blockers are able to get a kill.

Outside of playing effective small ball, the Bears must side out — receiving the serve but getting the point — at a clip of at least 70 percent. Siding out is a good indicator of how well a team is able to control the match. In most of their wins, the Bears were able to side out at about 70 percent of the time.

“We have a long way to go before we’re as good as we’re going to be this year,” Feller said. “I think we’re really a work in progress, and I’m hoping that we get better every week. There’s a lot of little things we have to do to improve our game.”

Winston Cho covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho