Losing a winnable match at home to Washington on Sept. 26 hurt, but getting swept by the Oregon schools this weekend in two tough matches at Haas Pavilion was excruciating. Four games into the conference season, the Bears seem to be backtracking more than improving. And with all remaining options seemingly exhausted on offense and defense, Cal looks backed into a corner.
Still without a conference victory, the Bears (8-6 overall, 0-4 Pac-12) go on the road to take on Arizona (14-2, 3-1) on Wednesday.
To start the match against the Huskies, Cal looked as though it had addressed its problems on offense. It wasn’t functioning at an elite level, but there was still a marked improvement on that side of the ball. Taking the first set 25-18, the Bears slammed 11 kills along with a .296 hitting percentage. This was in direct opposition to the anemic offense displayed by head coach Rich Feller’s squad against Stanford just a match prior.
In the first set, in which they scored 16 points against the then-No. 1 Cardinal, the Bears were still able to hit 10 kills, but the hitting percentage was at a far lower .143. But the biggest difference, by far, was the defense. Washington was contained to a .100 hitting percentage in the first set, but in the second, Washington jumped out to a .538 hitting percentage. Uncoincidentally, Cal lost the second set 25-13. Cal then allowed Washington to hit .400 and .556 with 18 and 10 kills in the fourth and fifth sets, respectively, for its second Pac-12 loss of the season.
If the matches against the Oregon schools showed anything, it’s that Cal has plenty of work to do on both sides of the ball. For long stretches of sets against both schools, the Bears looked incapable of setting up a kill or a difficult-to-hit shot. This problem will only worsen against the stout Arizona defense that has held opponents to a low .173 attack percentage. The Wildcats are similarly as formidable on offense, boasting a .270 attack percentage to go along with 14.5 kills per set.
But for all of the stretches of anemic offense and stagnant defense, Cal has flashed brilliance on occasion. Feller’s squad put up a more than respectable fight against No. 11 Oregon despite falling in three sets. Although the Ducks hit a mediocre .333 and .244 in the first and second sets, they played phenomenal defense — enough to stop the Cal offense dead in its tracks, as evidenced by the .172 and .105 hitting percentages in the first two sets. This, combined with Oregon outassisting, outblocking and outdigging the Bears made victory well out of reach.
Two days prior, Cal played a similarly close match against Oregon State in which the Bears fell in three sets again. This time, the first two sets had a two-point margin that could have easily gone Cal’s way. In a back-and-forth match, the Bears stayed in it the whole way through and maintained the lead for much of the way through. But in a match that really could have gone either way, Oregon State narrowly edged out Cal for its second conference victory.
Winston Cho covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho