Against tough Pac-12 opponents, Cal sand volleyball struggles to find footing

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Facing the elite of the Pac-12, the Bears were hit with a large dose of reality as this weekend served as a sobering reminder of their limitations to experience and athleticism. Despite playing their best stretch of volleyball recently after a pair of wins on its home court, Cal could not duplicate that success over the best teams in the nation, getting crushed in nearly every match.

The Bears (7-14) were able to get in some tough matches in their trip down to Santa Monica at the Pac-12 Invitational but returned without a victory in team play. Cal was manhandled by Arizona State, 4-1, and then swept by UCLA only hours later. Host school No. 1 USC (24-0), meanwhile, was able to beat out the Bears as well as No. 10 Arizona (15-3), Arizona State (7-12) and No. 8 UCLA (9-3) to win the Invitational and stay undefeated.

The Sun Devils had an impressive showing at the Annenberg Community Beach House, going 2-2 in dual match play and upsetting UCLA. The Bears’ No. 5 pair of senior Allison Leong and freshman Teya Neff started off by taking the first set, 21-15, from its opponents, but proceeded to lose the next two, 21-17, 15-10. While Leong and Neff were able to hit more kills — 33 to 30 — the Sun Devils managed to recover by hitting 31 digs, five more than the Bears. But what did Cal in was ASU hitting a much higher percentage of its shots, .294 to .222, than Cal.

Cal’s No. 4 pair of freshmen Mackenzie Feldman and Sammy Furlan scored the lone point to get the Bears on the scoreboard. Their fourth win in five matches, Feldman and Furlan were also able to secure the win rather handily, 21-14, 21-12. The Bears duo steamrolled through their opponents, hitting a combined 30 kills on a .400 hitting percentage compared to the 14 kills and .171 hitting percentage of the ASU.

And although they were not able to take its match to three sets, the No. 1 pair of junior Sarah Cole and sophomore Emily Lunt knocked on the door of a comeback multiple times. Ultimately ending in two sets 21-18, 21-18, Cole and Lunt were overwhelmed by the hitting power of their Sun Devil opponents as ASU was able to hit 33 kills compared to the 22 of Cal.

The Bears found themselves similarly overwhelmed against the Bruins at first but were able to make adjustments and improve improve in the following sets of nearly every match. Although they lost in two sets, 21-15, 21-19, Leong and Neff were in striking distance in both, and UCLA could have found itself on the wrong side of a comeback and a 1-0 start.

And in a reversal of fortunes, Feldman and Furlan found themselves having trouble hitting the ball as they were held to a .149 hitting percentage. While they were able to extend the game with their defensive play on the backs of their defense, their offense was not able to finish plays and score points.

Cole and Lunt similarly had difficulty scoring on UCLA’s No. 1 pair of 6-foot-3 Zoe Nightingale and Kamilia Tan, dropping the first set 21-11. But the second set was much closer, despite Nightingale and Tan hitting a combined .556 hitting percentage with 29 kills, ending 21-19.

Although Pac-12 Invitational did not go exactly as planned, associate head coach Meagan Schmitt’s squad was able to participate in multiple tough matches against great teams and gain valuable experience for her squad.

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