Prior to last season, Cal volleyball had qualified for the NCAA tournament for 12 straight years. But last season was not just any other year. The Bears cycled through more than 15 lineups because of injuries and were no longer the powerhouse they once established themselves as. Head coach Rich Feller had to realistically admit that Cal, a team searching for its identity, was not going to qualify for the postseason in a year in which the Pac-12 sent a record-breaking 10 squads to the NCAA tournament. But as a team that is still unsure of who it is, the Bears are making progress in closing the gap between them and the better teams — and there are a lot — in the Pac-12.
It may seem unusual for a seasoned coach such as Feller, but he admits to having no information about any of the squads the Bears are playing in the Molten Classic. Cal will go into its match against Nevada on Friday at 7 p.m. essentially blind, except for having seen the Wolf Pack before in previous seasons. The same goes for its match against Eastern Washington on Saturday at 10 a.m. and against Seattle the same day at 7 p.m. The Bears have the fortune of getting to see them play each other Friday, but the Swoop and the Redhawks can also scout Cal when it plays Nevada.
Despite losing just one match in the 10 years the Bears have been hosting the Molten Classic, Cal was voted 11th out of the 12 teams in a preseason ranking by Pac-12 coaches. This, however, may have more to do with the startling number of dominating teams populated by the Pac-12. The Bears do very well playing clubs outside their conference but understandably struggle against teams such as defending Pac-12 champion Stanford, as well as Arizona State and Washington — voted the top-three teams in the Pac-12 in the same poll.
But coaches who vote on these preseason rankings often fail to account for roster makeup, injury and team chemistry. The 2014-15 Cal volleyball squad was primarily made up of underclassmen, and the veterans on the squad couldn’t play for stretches of the season. Feller, although it is his job to be, is much more optimistic about this season, with good reason. Outside the group of freshmen Cal added ranking as the No. 9 recruiting class in the nation, the Bears boast a top-notch middle blocker tandem in seniors Lillian Schonewise and Lara Vukasovic.
“I’m a middle blocker, and I’m mostly an offensive player, even though I’ve been working a lot on my defense this year,” Vukasovic said. “I just want to impose myself as a hitter on the net so that the other opposite hitter stays with me and also so that the other pins hit better.”
Middle blockers don’t typically get as many offensive looks as outside hitters, but with such a strong middle, spreading the ball around makes it harder for opposing blockers to predict where to set up their block. Not only that, it opens up the game for the outside hitters — primarily senior Nikki Gombar, whom coach Feller praised for her improved passing, and sophomore Ashten Smith-Gooden, a potent weapon on the pins.
As Nevada, Eastern Washington and Seattle are much smaller than Cal, they will most likely be featuring smaller, quicker lineups to try and use speed to beat the Bears — a strategy Cal is all too familiar with. Cal is unranked, but coach Feller said everyone is going to be focused on trying to “upset the big dog in the fight.” It is rare that Cal comes into a match as the favorite, and it is up to the squad not to disappoint in the newly completed Haas Pavilion, renovated with a new center-hung scoreboard.
“Because none of these teams are ranked, it’s really about coming out with wins against unranked teams,” Feller said. “It’s to try to establish some momentum and get all of our team on one side of the court pulling as one instead of split — half the team on one side, half the team on the other. So it’s about getting that team feel, getting that competitive feel.”
Winston Cho covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho