When the Cal volleyball team took on No. 4 Washington — the team’s second top-5 opponent in a row — at Haas Pavilion on Friday night, everything went as expected at first. The Huskies jumped out to a 5-1 lead in the first set, and for the 1,047 fans in attendance, it looked like Cal was on the fast track to an 0-2 conference start.
Then that narrative got thrown out when the Bears rallied to win the set, 25-18. The Huskies pummeled the Bears in the next set, but Cal won the third one, and suddenly the Bears had a 2-1 lead and were just one more win away from wrapping up a monumental upset.
“It was just kind of magical,” said head coach Rich Feller. “We put the Huskies on their heels a bit.”
Ultimately, the magic would run out. Cal (8-4, 0-2 Pac-12) fell in the final two sets as Washington (13-0, 2-0) went on to win, 18-25, 25-13, 22-25, 25-21, 15-7. Though Cal was able to last five sets against one of the best teams in the nation — a team that made the Final Four last year — coming up just short was bittersweet for the Bears.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” Feller said. “You go five sets, and you feel like you should have won. But on the other side, you go five sets, and you feel like you can play with the best.”
In the first and third sets, everything seemed to go right for the Bears. Washington had an abundance of errors — nine in the first set and seven in the third — and Cal was able to capitalize. The Bears were able to hit at efficient, although not eye-popping, percentages of .296 and .290 in those sets, respectively, to cruise by the Huskies. Christina Higgins, Lara Vukasovic, and Ashten Smith-Gooden provided the most offense for the Bears, all adding double-digit kills. Although Washington had more kill attempts in both sets, the Huskies’ errors and low hitting percentage relegated their advantage in attempts moot.
“It was the perfect combination of everyone doing their job,” Feller said. “We had a really good, efficient sideout game. I think we had a great blocking plan for them.”
The fourth set was another close one. The set was 22-20 late, with the Bears just trailing the Huskies. But Washington scored on three of the next four points to close out the set and tie the overall match at two sets apiece.
“I think Washington adjusted a little bit, we adjusted back a bit, and I think their final adjustment … They seemed to get back to their final-four mentality,” Feller said.
Feller and the Bears started rotating in players to find a solution — 10 Cal players logged time for all five sets — but nothing was working. The hot-hitting that Higgins, Vukasovic, Smith-Gooden and junior Lillian Schonewise had shown in the beginning of the match started to cool, and the Huskies dominated the fifth and final set, earning the win.