With the count tied at 18, Seattle’s setter, Shae Harris, ripped off a service ace right out of a Bears timeout. Cal volleyball coach Rich Feller, who had seemed so nonchalant sitting on his chair just a couple of points ago, started to pace back and forth. He could smell defeat, and James Finley, the third-year Seattle coach, could smell the sweet taste of not only victory but a sweep.
Harris followed her service ace with two assists to outside hitter Mamic Matea, and Seattle extended its lead by three points. This forced Cal to call another timeout, but it would score only one more point off a service error, ending the match with a crushing 25-18, 25-21, 25-19 defeat.
“I don’t think we played up to the level we played up to the last two matches,” Feller said. “Our passing was not good, and their serving took us out of all sorts of rhythm. So, all in all, it was a tough match to be a part of.”
Playing without redshirt senior middle blocker Lillian Schonewise, Cal was still able to string together a strong start to the season with a pair of sweeps against Nevada on Friday and against Eastern Washington University on Saturday morning. The Bears, however, were not able to keep their streak of Molten Classic victories alive. Their loss to the Redhawks on Saturday in the final round is just the second match they lost in the tournament in the 11 years they’ve hosted it.
Schonewise and senior middle blocker Lara Vukasovic make up what coach Feller considers the strongest dimension of Cal’s team. But the absence of Schonewise because of injury forced junior opposite hitter Jenelle Jordan into the middle blocker position in her stead. Playing out of position as a relatively short middle blocker, Jordan was still able to lead the team with seven kills on a .538 hitting percentage. For her efforts, she was awarded a Molten Classic All-Tournament team selection after the match.
“We learned a lot about our passing,” Jordan said. “We took a lot of smart, strong swings, and the other team had a lot of good defensive ups. We didn’t do anything bad, I would say. They had tough serves, and we passed them the best we could. We hit our strongest hits, and they dug them up. There’s always a weakness and strength, but it’s always compared to who you’re playing.”
The Redhawks knew how to play Cal, and they stuck to their gameplan: serving strong and staying aggressive. Seattle was able to rack up 12 service aces to Cal’s paltry two. Although the Redhawks did record five more service errors, they were able to leverage their strong serving to force Cal into unforced errors and miscommunications. And while Schonewise’s injury left a noticeable hole in the middle, Seattle’s aggressive serving played a huge part in the Bears’ setters failing to connect with the hitters.
“I think they were very aggressive,” Feller said. “They served with reckless abandon, and they got a lot of good serves in. That was the way they had to play us. That was smart of them. They played that way the whole way with nothing to lose.”
While the Redhawks played to win, the Bears were playing to not lose. The miscommunications can be chalked up to early season nerves, but the Bears were also serving safely and focusing on getting the ball across, giving the Redhawks great first touches, which led to better looks at kills. On the flip side, even when the Bears seemingly did get kill opportunities, the Redhawks were able to dig them consistently and pass into a counterattack.
“The opponent was definitely ourselves, but I think that moving forward from here, we can use this match to learn from,” said freshman outside hitter Belen Castillo. “We had miscommunication and errors. It’s early in the season, and we’re working on new things.”
Winston Cho covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho