Cal volleyball falls just short of first Pac-12 win

Ariel D. Hayat/Staff

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Friday night, the Bears were just two points shy of their first conference win — but they couldn’t finish.

The Cal volleyball team took on the mountain schools this weekend, resulting in two more losses for the Bears. Cal (8-10, 0-8 Pac-12) seemed well on its way to its first conference win against Utah at the Huntsman Center, but the Utes (12-6, 2-5) came from behind and won, keeping the Bears’ losing streak intact. Cal went on to face Colorado on Sunday and fell to the Buffaloes (12-8, 4-4) in four sets.

But the real heartbreaker for the Bears was Friday’s game against Utah.

Cal came out strong against the Utes, taking an early 4-0 lead in the first set. As the set progressed, Utah battled back and tied the game 21-21. But the Bears were able to finish the set with three points in a row, eventually taking the first set, 25-22.

In the second set, it was Utah’s turn to take the lead early on. Cal battled back as the Bears trailed 21-19 until sophomore outside hitter Nikki Gombar stepped up to serve and scored five straight points. With the Bears in the lead after Gombar’s streak, Cal went on to claim the second set, 25-21.

Utah took an early 6-1 lead over the Bears in the third set. Cal dug deep to come back from the deficit, and later in the match, with the Bears leading 23-20, it looked as if Cal was closing in on its first conference win. But Utah scored four points in a row to take the lead 24-23. And despite senior outside hitter Christina Higgins earning a kill and tying the set at 24, the Utes scored back-to-back points and forced the Bears to a fourth set.

“(The third set) didn’t fall our way, and we lost a little bit of focus, and all of a sudden we’re going to a fourth game,” said Cal head coach Rich Feller. “Utah got confident, and it changed their attitude. (It comes down to) the experience of being able to close out a game and the experience of going for a win rather than protecting a lead or trying not to lose.”

The term “too little, too late” rang true as the fourth set was all Utah, with the Utes recording an 11-2 run and leading the Bears, 15-6. Cal could not catch up, and Utah won the fourth set easily, 25-18. The Bears were unable to recapture their success from the first two sets, and Utah went on to win the fifth set 15-11.

“It was unfortunate that (the game) went that way, but it really was some of the best volleyball we played all year,” Feller said. “I think sometimes inexperienced teams go into a protect mode and get careful, and as soon as you get careful you lose some of the edge you had to finish the game. If you haven’t gotten to that finish, it’s pretty hard to see how to do it. At some point, we’re going to do it and we’ll know what it feels like, and we’ll be able to do it again.”

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