With the game deadlocked at two matches apiece, the heads in the crowd at the sand volleyball match were swiveling as they watched Cal’s No. 1 pair of junior Sarah Cole and sophomore Emily Lunt duke it out against Stanford senior Lauren Birks and junior Brittany Howard. After coming back to tie it up at 10-10, Stanford embarked on a 4-1 run on the 6-foot-3 back of Howard to knock on the door of victory.
And with the game on the line, Lunt set up a midcourt pass, leading to a kill for Cole, only for it to be dug by the Cardinal opponents. That led to an easy kill that sailed above the Bears’ heads and ended the match, 15-11.
Cal’s last game of the season came down to the last set of the last match, but the Bears (7-15) were not able to come out on top of the Cardinal (11-4), losing, 3-2. Despite taking an early 2-0 lead, Cal surrendered the final three matches — the last a steel-cage match between the two teams’ top pairs, with Stanford taking home the last dual match and the rivalry bragging rights for the season.
“I think we were going against two significantly more physical players, which is typical of this season,” Cole said. “And I think it took the first set to figure out how to outsmart them, and in the second set, we brought out that strategy, and it worked really well. But they completely responded in the third set by using their physicality. They kept themselves in system really well and were executing plays that were really difficult for us to defend.”
The first point of the match belonged to Cal’s No. 4 pair of freshmen MacKenzie Feldman and Sammy Furlan. The duo lost their first set, 21-17, but came back to win the second set, 21-15. The Bears’ aggressive play carried over into the third set, as Cal saw the Stanford defense crumble before them. Stanford serves led to easy set, set, kills, as Furlan and Feldman drove Stanford closer to the edge of the cliff. And almost effortlessly, with the Cardinal withdrawing, Cal pushed them off to win the set, 15-7, and the match.
The second point came soon after the Bears’ No. 4 pair’s victory, as the No. 5 pair of senior Allison Leong and sophomore Sabrina Blackwell narrowly went on to win the second set, 21-19, after losing a close first set, 22-20. Then, after clawing their way back into the game and taking the lead 14-13, Leong bumped the ball to Blackwell high over the net with their opponents running at them to block the shot. And with the match on the line, Blackwell killed the ball over the outstretched arms of the Stanford block to side-out and win the match.
The Bears were in good position to easily take the match. The No. 3 pair of senior Inanna Eshoo and freshman Katie Regalia won the first set of their match, 21-18, and were just one set away from taking the last game of the season. But then, they surrendered a close second set, 21-18, and lost the match in the third set. Stanford was blazing a comeback trail, and it only grew when Cal’s No. 2 pair of freshman Emily Shults and junior Ashley Johnson lost in two sets, 21-16, 22-20.
After Shults and Johnson lost, the crowd shifted its attention to Cole and Lunt and their duel against the towering Birks and Howard. The Cardinal seized control of the game in the first set with their size and power, overwhelming Cal. The Bears, however, responded by taking the second set, 21-15. They eliminated Stanford’s height advantage by avoiding the block and scored points of their own, with Lunt getting hot and striking down kills left and right.
The last set initially favored Cal as it maintained a two- or three-point lead all set long off clean kill opportunities and good serves, leading to broken plays. But the Bears were never able to extend their lead, as the Cardinal stayed within striking distance. And when Stanford saw an opportunity to strike with the set tied at 10-10, it did so, ending the match on an 8-2 run, crushing the Bears’ hopes and expectations of victory.
“It’s a world of difference from last season,” said head coach Rich Feller. “This is a team that trains sand and is learning how to play the doubles game much, much better. I think it’s a good step forward into more sand play and more competition.”
Winston Cho covers sand volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho