Cal sand volleyball heads to Santa Monica for Pac-12 Invitational

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Winners of three of their last five games, the Cal women’s sand volleyball team has finally hit their stride in perfect timing for the Pac-12 Invitational. Unfortunately for the Bears, they will be playing three of the top teams in not only the Pac-12, but in the nation. And whether Cal can steal a game from them will largely be up to good fortune and chance.

The Bears (7-12) will travel down south to sunny Santa Monica this weekend, but it won’t be all fun and games as Cal will take part in a steel-cage, bracket-style competition over the course of two days against host school No. 1 USC (21-0), No. 8 UCLA (8-2) and No. 10 Arizona (13-1). This leaves the Bears as the only unranked team in the competition, the lowest seed and the obvious underdogs. The invitational opens with team play Saturday beginning at 8 a.m. and concludes Sunday with pairs play.

Cal has been playing well as of late, exemplified by its most recent wins over St. Mary’s and Santa Clara. The Broncos narrowly beat Cal earlier this season, 3-2, but the Bears quickly dispatched them this second time around, needing only four matches to win. The games at the invitational, however, will most likely prove more difficult because Cal will be playing much bigger and more experienced teams.

The Bears are used to playing bigger teams than them, but the three squads at the invitational either have years of sand volleyball or collegiate, indoor volleyball experience, unlike the Cal team. As the team did against the Gaels and Broncos, Cal will have to focus on its block-pull defense and floor balance to protect against the other side’s devastating hitters.

On offense, the Bears will most likely continue to use deception, strategy and ball placement in lieu of hard-hitting because they lack the height to see over the block. To do this, communication between setters and hitters to tell each other vulnerable spots on the court will be key.

“For us, because we’re not that big, we’re very defensive,” said sophomore Emily Lunt. “As long as we have our defensive plays together, as long as we can serve-receive and get a good second contact and set the ball up and give our partner a good, solid call, balls will go down.”

Of the teams at the invitational that the Bears have played, UCLA thoroughly pummeled Cal earlier this season, 4-1. For the Bears, the then-No. 5 pair of freshmen Mackenzie Feldman and Sammy Furlan was able to notch a two-set victory, but only one other Cal duo was able to take its match to three sets. The No. 1 pair of junior Sarah Cole and Lunt was almost able to topple the Bruins’ twin towers but ultimately fell short, 15-13, in the third set. No other Cal pair came close beating its UCLA opponents.

“We’ll go into this weekend knowing our strengths which is ball control and shot placement,” said associate head coach Meagan Schmitt. “So just like most weekends, we’re going to focus on our side of the net and executing our plays rather than solely stopping their shots.”

The game against UCLA was an indicator of what is to come for the Bears at the Pac-12 Invitational this weekend. But, unfortunately for them, it was not a good sign.

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