It’s easy to look at the Bears’ last-place standing in the Pac-12 and dismiss them. They have all the tell-tale signs of a rebuilding team. They play multiple inexperienced freshmen who have yet to prove themselves, leading to a few blowout losses and a winless conference record.
But these losses can actually be attributed to playing in the most competitive conference against the best teams in the nation, and the next few matches should reveal how competitive Cal actually is in the Pac-12.
The Cal volleyball team (8-8 overall, 0-6 Pac-12) will be put to the test against Utah (11-6, 1-5) and Colorado (11-7, 3-3) over the weekend. Cal will square off in an away series against the Utes on Friday and then again against the Buffs on Sunday.
With only one conference win, Utah will be one of the easier squads the Bears will have to face in the Pac-12. With that said, Utah was able to defeat Arizona State, and the Sun Devils easily beat Cal in four sets last weekend.
With the loss to Arizona State, coach Rich Feller’s team is riding a six-match losing streak. Amid concerns in the offseason about whether they would be able to compete after the loss of key players, the Bears kicked off the season 8-2. But their success didn’t translate to the elite level of play seen in the Pac-12.
Six matches into the conference season, Feller seems to have settled on a 10-player rotation in comparison to the six-player rotations played by elite teams like Stanford and Washington, and even Utah and Colorado. While Cal’s system may seem better, it comes with serious offensive limitations and consequences toward the end of matches.
Because the Bears play 10 players, Cal is forced to substitute players in and out of the match constantly. But as each team is allowed only 15 substitutions, Feller must choose when to use his substitutions strategically. Where a team that only plays six players could potentially substitute out a poor front row player at the end of the match, Cal would be unable to do so. This also restricts Feller’s options to substitute in serving and defensive specialists against certain lineups.
“I think we just need to focus on getting all of our parts together at one time,” said opposite hitter Christina Higgins. “A lot of the time, our passing might be successful, but our hitting might not be. And then our hitting might be successful, but our defense might be off.”
How Feller chooses to use his substitutions will be key, especially against stout Utah and Colorado defenses. Utah and Colorado are among the best blocking teams with 2.6 and 2.3 blocks per set, respectively, and against a Cal team that only averages 12.5 kills per set on a .215 hitting percentage, they’re both in good position to shut down Cal offensively. The Bears don’t have many dynamic scorers, and they’ll likely be relying on big performances from their middle blockers or Higgins.
“We’re still trying to figure out what the best lineup is,” Feller said. “We’re still kind of searching for that perfect mesh of who can really play consistently throughout the course of a match. And the more we play, the better we have a chance to see that.”
Winston Cho covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho