The Bears may still be winless in the Pac-12, but Cal head volleyball coach Rich Feller continues to make steady progress on both sides of the ball. Last week, the Bears gave then-No. 4 Washington more than the Huskies were expecting when they took the Huskies to five sets just three days after being swept by Stanford. And it’s no coincidence this improvement came just a week after inserting 6-foot-2 sophomore Jenelle Jordan to the frontline as middle blocker.
With an opportunity to bring its conference record to .500, Cal (8-4 overall, 0-2 Pac-12) hosts Oregon State (11-2, 1-1) on Friday night and No. 11 Oregon (12-0, 2-0) two days later at Haas Pavilion.
The addition of Jordan to the frontline as middle blocker allows Feller to return former middle blocker Lara Vukasovic to opposite hitter. The trio makes up a daunting frontline, big and athletic enough to compete against any team in the country.
Christina Higgins, Vukasovic and now Jordan make up a more physically imposing frontcourt that should lead to more kill and block opportunities. With the newly added height, the Bears should hit harder-to-block kills, as well as block a couple more shots themselves. And with libero Maddy Kerr proving to have a standout season, Cal is in prime position to continue steadily improving on defense.
Last time out, in Jordan’s second match in the starting lineup, Cal barely fell to Washington, 18-25, 25-13, 22-25, 25-21, 15-7, in five sets at Haas Pavilion. But this was a significant improvement over the loss to No. 1 Stanford, 25-16, 26-24, 25-16, just three days earlier.
Although the Bears fared much better against the Huskies despite playing back-to-back top-five opponents, Cal continues to suffer from offensive stagnancy. Against the Cardinal, Cal hit just 33 kills in three sets with a .122 hitting percentage.
But with the added height to the starting lineup, Feller has seen a noticeable difference, especially on defense. Against Washington, Cal was able to block nine shots, three coming from middle blocker Lillian Schonewise and two from Jordan herself. Setter Alyssa Jensen and Vukasovic also contributed two blocks apiece.
“Jenelle is just a very physical player,” Feller said. “She’s extremely quick, has a big let down, and she can impact a ball wherever it is.”
With the stabilization of the frontline, Kerr has emerged as a defensive force for the Bears in the back. Despite not showing up on the stat sheet, Kerr has been a consistent passer in tandem with Jensen and is sixth in the Pac-12 in digs per set with 3.9. She’s broken the 20-dig mark three times this season and had 13 in the first set alone against offensive powerhouse Washington. Oregon, on the other hand, boasts libero Amanda Benson, who hits 3.96 digs per set — good enough for fifth in the conference.
Although defense will be a significant factor against the Oregon schools, the Bears’ primary concern should be finding a way to put up points on the board.
Winston Cho covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho