Cal volleyball still in search of first Pac-12 win

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At the start of the season, the Cal volleyball team appeared talented enough to at least stay competitive in the Pac-12. Nonconference matches against unranked teams saw the Bears beating inferior opponents, fooling Cal fans into what looked to be a promising season. But 10 conference matches later, the Bears have yet claim their first victory and sit last in the Pac-12.

Still reeling from an unexpectedly miserable start to conference play, Cal (8-12, 0-10 Pac-12) fixes its eyes on its first Pac-12 victory in a road series against the Oregon schools this weekend. The Bears take on No. 12 Oregon (16-4, 6-4) on Friday and Oregon State (14-7, 4-6) on Sunday.

“We’re still obviously focusing on getting that first Pac-12 win,” said opposite hitter Christina Higgins. “Just putting behind us whatever losses we may have in the past and since it’s the start to the second half of the Pac-12, starting fresh and beating some teams we haven’t beat.”

In its third and fourth conference matches of the season, Cal was swept at home by both Oregon schools. Third in the Pac-12, Oregon has only lost four games this season, all to top-20 teams. The Beavers, meanwhile, have exceeded expectations this season by following up a winless conference season last year with four Pac-12 victories already.

The Ducks come into their matchup against Cal with a game plan featuring a top-notch offense. They average 14.92 kills per set on a .253 hitting percentage, both above-average marks by a considerable margin. Led by their outside hitter duo Liz Brenner and Martenne Bettendorf, Oregon is among the top five in the Pac-12 in all four major offensive categories — hitting percentage, assists, sets and kills. They both had 17 kills apiece in a losing effort to Arizona State.

“(Oregon) spreads its offense well, actually, so we’re not focused on one hitter,” Higgins said. “Brenner is a big name — she gets a lot of kills for them, but they spread their offense well. So we’re focused on shutting down all hitters.”

Oregon State, however, is an average offensive team at best but boasts a strong defense. The Beavers are the worst team in the Pac-12 kills per set and don’t fare too much better in hitting percentage. But they quickly put points on the board with service aces while digging the ball on the other end.

The Bears, on the other hand, are ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in hitting percentage at .193. And to make a bad situation worse, they only average 12.47 kills and 12.16 assists per set.

Defending Oregon’s powerhouse offense will be a Cal defense that gives up a .289 hitting percentage. The Bears are dead last in opponent hitting percentage and among the worst teams in blocks as well as digs in the conference.

“I think it’s been a combination of both (our offense and defense),” Higgins said. “We can’t blame one more than the other. Sometimes our offense shows up, and our defense doesn’t and vice versa. So it’s definitely not just one or the other — we need to improve both.”

Winston Cho covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho