This time last year, the Bears were playing their 11th dual match of the inaugural sand volleyball season.
This time around, they’re gearing up for their 22nd.
But by being thrown into the deep end against top-notch teams with more experience and size, Cal is no longer thrashing in the water as fodder for better squads. It is the underdog competition that other teams do not want to face.
Fatigue will be a factor against Stanford (9-4), as the Bears (7-14) have played nearly double the matches the Cardinal has played. Cal is also coming off a brutal trip to Santa Monica, California, at the Pac-12 Invitational, where it lost both matches in team play to UCLA and Arizona. But playing at home for just the third time this year should help the Bears when they play Stanford at the Clark Kerr Sand Courts on Sunday at 3:30 p.m.
Cal comes into the game severely undersized, just as it was against UCLA a week ago at the Pac-12 Invitational. The Cardinal and Bears embrace two different playing styles with different types of players. Stanford features 10 players who are 6-foot or taller, some with years of experience on the indoor volleyball team. Cal on the other hand, features only two players that are at least 6-foot and has very few players on the squad that have played collegiate volleyball.
The Bears, however, have not let their size, or lack thereof, prevent them from achieving success on the courts. They play defensively and methodically, preventing bigger players from getting to their spots and hitting their shots by placing the ball in vulnerable, open areas of the court. Communication remains a primary focus for the Bears, as relaying information about what shots — option-angle and deep-angle, for example — they should hit and what shots the opponent is about to hit is key.
The Pac-12 Invitational did not prove kind to Cal, as it quickly fell in team play, first to Arizona State and then to UCLA. The Sun Devils had a particularly good tournament, upsetting UCLA en route to a 2-2 record in team play. The Bears, however, were not as fortunate, getting bounced early in the bracket-style tournament after two one-sided losses.
Cal’s No. 4 pair of freshmen Mackenzie Feldman and Sammy Furlan was the lone duo able to get a point for the Bears against Arizona State. In their fourth win in five matches, Feldman and Furlan easily won, 21-14, 21-12, unlike the rest of their teammates, who were unable to take their matches to three sets with the exception of the No. 5 pair of senior Allison Leong and freshman Teya Neff.
The game against UCLA was much of the same story, except that the Bears were not able to escape with a point on the scoreboard. Unlike in their match against the Sun Devils, Feldman and Furlan lost fairly easily in two sets, 21-13, 21-13, while the No. 1 pair of junior Sarah Cole and sophomore Emily Lunt staged a comeback late in its match but ultimately fell short, 21-11, 21-19.
The Bears have undoubtedly played several tough, experienced squads in the deep end of the pool this year. But by playing so many matches against so many good teams, Cal is no longer treading water but swimming on its own.
Winston Cho covers sand volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho