Cal volleyball travels south to face two Pac-12 rivals

Cesar Ruiz/Staff

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A victim of the most brutal conference in the nation, the Cal volleyball team continues its campaign as possibly the worst team in the Pac-12. And with their NCAA tournament hopes all but dashed, the Bears have only the future to play for: the far future.

Still looking for its first conference victory, Cal (8-16, 0-14 Pac-12) takes a trip down south to take on USC (14-11, 7-8) on Friday and UCLA (17-8, 8-6) on Sunday.

“I think a lot (has changed). We’ve had to change all of our goals,” said head coach Rich Feller. “We’ve had to change a lot as far as what we feel we can do. We’ve had probably 15 different lineups due to injuries and illnesses and different things that have happened. We’ve been a team in progress throughout the year, and we’ve had to realistically say we’re not going to the tournament this year.”

Last time out, the Bears stumbled against Arizona, falling in a three-set sweep. Breaking the 20-point barrier only once in those three sets, Cal’s sloppy offense continued to play out as a major contributing factor to the squad’s issues.

As opposed to the struggling Bear offense, the Trojans have had significantly more success running an offense predicated on the pins and back row. Outside of service aces, which they rank second in the Pac-12 with 1.48 per set, their offense is conference-average with a .249 hitting percentage.

USC’s offense, unlike Cal’s, thrives off out-of-system balls. While the Bears prefer to keep the ball in control and pass the ball to their setter Alyssa Jensen, the Trojans elect to pass on the first touch. From there, the ball will either travel high to the outside or opposite hitters, or the back-row attackers.

If run correctly, the Trojans’ offense of regularly passing to either the back-row attackers or the pins for a kill keeps teams on their toes. If the Bears are to contain their high-flying attack, they’re going to have to make quick decisions about how their block is arranged. If the block is set up defending a kill off the pins but USC runs a back-row kill, saving the point becomes that much harder. And in the case that the point is saved, hitting a hard-to-hit ball back becomes difficult as the ball will most likely be out of system.

“We have to read their offense so we know when their back-row hitters are a priority and when their frontrow hitters are a priority,” Feller said. “They mix it up a little bit, but based on statistics, we can make a pretty good educated guesses. It’s knowledge of where they are and some statistics.”

UCLA, on the other hand, elects to run a faster-paced offense revolving around the outside hitter duo of Karsta Lowe and Reily Buechler. The Bruins utilize a fast-paced offense with low passes. This gives teams less time to react, creating holes in the defense and opportunities for UCLA.

“The dream would be to get two road wins in the Pac-12, especially with our situation this year,” Feller said. “A win against anyone will be a welcome win. But I want to see we’re learning what we’re working on. I thought we’ve been improving a lot in the past month.”

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