With USC up to serve, the Cal volleyball team needed only one more point to take the tie-breaker fifth set and its first conference victory of the season. Trojan libero Taylor Whittingham served the ball high in the air to the right side of the court, allowing an easy bump pass to setter Alyssa Jensen. Jensen then jumped in the air for a two-handed, overhead set, delicately pushing the ball to the kill zone of middle blocker Lara Vukasovic.
Realizing her opportunity, Vukasovic sprinted until she was within reach of the net, where she lept and cocked her right arm back for a thunderous, right-handed kill off the fingertips of the Trojan block. And for the first time, Cal got to huddle up, not to recover but to celebrate.
In their first win against the Trojans on the road in 10 years, the Bears (9-17, 1-15 Pac-12) captured a much-needed conference victory Friday in a nail-biter against USC (14-12, 7-9), 21-25, 25-23, 23-25, 25-15, 15-13. But they could not follow it up with another victory, getting swept 25-21, 25-23, 25-15 by UCLA (18-9, 9-7) two days later Sunday.
“It was great; it was just pure happiness,” said Christina Higgins. “Our season hasn’t been going the way we planned it; we haven’t had many victories, so it was just something to be proud of. Nothing but pure happiness.”
Led by outside hitter Christina Higgins with 22 kills, the Cal offense finally found its rhythm after a season of searching. The Bears usually average a .201 hitting percentage, but they hit a more-than-respectable .295 hitting percentage against USC. Even better, Cal managed to kill the ball 74 times compared to the Trojans’ 61.
“We were able to get transition kills and first ball kills,” said head coach Rich Feller. “It’s what we’ve been working on quite a bit in practice. We got better at it, and it showed up in the USC match.”
Cal also had multiple players contribute to the offensive end as four players finished with double-digit kills. Outside of Higgins, middle blocker Lillian Schonewise played a phenomenal match, lighting up the Trojan defense with 21 kills on a .471 hitting percentage.
“When you can have three or more players effectively hitting, that’s a really big bonus,” Feller said. “When you only have two, you can’t do it, you can’t win. But three or four, suddenly your offense is much, much better.”
Even against a top-ranked Bruin defense, the Bears’ offensive hot streak continued, evidenced by a season-high .303 hitting percentage and a respectable 39 kills in a three-set match. But UCLA proceeded to lay waste to the struggling Cal defense, hitting the ball at a clip of .419 with 52 kills. In only three sets, Cal allowed three Bruins to hit the double-digit mark in kills.
“UCLA’s ball control was exceptional,” Feller said. “They were putting the ball in the setter’s hands in a really good spot and servicing in transition. They ran a really fast offense when they were in system.”
Winston Cho covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho