Cal volleyball battles No. 1 Stanford in Palo Alto

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For the Bears, taking on the Cardinal is always a big game in and of itself, but with Stanford ranked as the No. 1 team in the country, well — the Bears have their work cut out for them.

The Cal women’s volleyball team will take on Stanford this Tuesday in the Big Spike at Maples Pavilion in Palo Alto, California, starting at 6 p.m. The Bears (8-2) and the Cardinal will both open the conference play with their first meeting of the season.

Stanford emerges from nonconference play with a perfect 10-0 record and takes up the mantel of No. 1 team in the country after beating the reigning national champions, Penn State, Sept. 5. The Cardinal have also managed to best four other ranked teams throughout their nonconference play.

Leading Stanford is returning junior middle blocker and AVCA First Team All-American, Inky Ajanaku. She currently has a .510 hitting percentage, the second-highest in the Pac-12. Ajanaku also averages 3.53 kills per set, coming in seventh in the Pac-12 for kills. The only other player with a higher hitting percentage is another Cardinal: redshirt freshman middle blocker Merete Lutz.

Lutz made her college debut this season and has rapidly solidified herself as one of Stanford’s go-to players. She has grabbed the first-place spot in the Pac-12 with a whopping .577 hitting percentage.

With both Ajanaku and Lutz’s presence, Stanford boasts a solid defense for the Cardinal in the middle. This, however, does not mean their outside offense is lacking — quite the opposite. Junior outside hitter Jordan Burgess is second on the team in kills, with 2.78 kills per set.

With such a solid offensive showing by Stanford, the Bears’ have to work on tightening up the system they’ve been running — especially because they still don’t necessarily have a finalized starting lineup. But despite the young nature of their team, the depth of their bench is not a hindrance but a help for Cal, who have recently been relying on new and old players alike for both offense and defense.

“On our side of the net, we’re pretty well prepared,” said Lillian Schonewise, one of Cal’s middle blockers. “We’re not really going to change much on our side in terms of how we play against them. We’re going to play our game and adjust a little bit here and there to kind of work around what they’ve got.”

Schonewise will be a key component in the coming match, with a .347 hitting percentage — high enough to be ranked 10th in the Pac-12. She has been a constant for the Bears’ system, averaging 1.28 blocks per set.

Alongside Schonewise is senior opposite hitter Christina Higgins, who is leading the team with an average of 3.00 kills per set. Sophomore setter Alyssa Jensen continues to have a good starting debut this season, coming in fifth in assists in the Pac-12, averaging 10.73 assists per set.

“Whatever ranking they have, I always look at them as Stanford — they’re the team to beat,” Schonewise said. “Outside sources will probably think, ‘Wow, Cal doesn’t even have a chance.’ But I think it’s going to be a good game.”

Alicia Fong covers volleyball. Contact her at [email protected]