In a season of learning and growth, Cal sand volleyball has been, at its worst, physically dominated, and, at its best, inconsistent but promising. Looking past their initially unimpressive roster, the Bears have shown streaks of strong individual play despite their inexperience. This weekend, Cal’s growth will be put to the test when the Bears get the opportunity to play three Pac-12 schools at the Stanford Invitational.
The Stanford Invitational will set the stage for the first dual match between Cal (4-10) and a Pac-12 team in conference play this season. The Pac-12 is reknown for its strong indoor volleyball, and the same can be said thus far for sand volleyball. The Bears will play three dual matches in two days, starting with their 3 p.m. match against UCLA (5-1) on Friday. Cal will go on to play Oregon (0-1) at 9 a.m. and conclude with Washington (5-0) at 12 p.m. These matches against three top Pac-12 squads will not only show associate head coach Meagan Schmitt the strides Cal has made on the court, but will hint at the future of Pac-12 sand volleyball.
“It’s going to be some tough competition,” sophomore Emily Lunt said. “They’re obviously big Pac-12 schools. I know their programs are all relatively new but are mostly (made up of) indoor players. So they’re going to be a really big team and … it’s going to be a tough weekend.”
The No. 1 pair of Lunt and junior Sarah Cole was the only duo able to return home from the Sacramento State Tournament last weekend with a 2-0 record. The 5-foot-11 Cole and even smaller 5-foot-8 Lunt, although physically outmatched, narrowly outplayed both opponents, proving that Schmitt’s template for success can be successful. All that is left for the young Bears is to try to replicate that template game after game.
“Everytime we compete against a larger team, we have to make sure that we focus on playing Cal sand volleyball rather than be someone we’re not,” Schmitt said. “And if we successfully execute our own game plan, we should be victorious.”
All three Pac-12 teams Cal is facing this weekend boasts several more physically domineering and experienced players than the Bears. But instead of focusing on the opponent’s side of the net, Cal continued to build upon their template for success this week, working on calling and ball-placement.
Communication is especially significant in sand volleyball because there are two players on either side of the court. It is vital that pairs maintain good communication so setters can make good calls on the ball leading to open kill opportunities and easy points. The majority of Cal’s points recently have come when the Bears have caught opponents leaning one way opening up shots to opportunistic spots on the court.
“We have a lot of shots, and we’re a really small team, but we like to think that we’re a smart team as well,” Lunt said. “So while they might have these hitters who can smash balls down, we’re really good about calls and placement of the ball and working with our partners to put balls down in other ways.”
Defense was also on the agenda this week at practice as most Cal duos are defensive pairs, because they are physically outmatched most times. The Bears try to have a blocker stay up and block a foot of the net space, preventing big hitters from getting kills.
“Our girls are making much better in-game decisions,” Schmitt said. “They are knowing when it’s a great opportunity to block and when it’s a great opportunity to hit to earn the point.”
Winston Cho covers sand volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho