Cal volleyball co-captains Maddy Kerr and Lillian Schonewise led the Bears into the Pentagon Athletic Center, the recreational facility under the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense. Military personnel walked right beside the Bears (5-4) and escorted them to and from the gym in addition to screening them for security measures prior to each match.
After this intimidating process just to play in the Service Academy Classic, the squad got off to slow starts against Harvard and Army, losing the first two sets against the Crimson and the first set against the Black Knights. The Bears, however, shook off their early, pre-Pentagon nerves and fought back to take both matches. Harvard took it to five sets, but Cal regained its form just in time to steal the match, 18-25, 23-25, 28-26, 25-18, 15-9. Cal again came back, this time against Army, to improve its record to 2-0 at the tournament, winning in four sets this time, 21-25, 25-20, 25-14, 25-19.
The victory against the Black Knights also saw positive contributions from sophomore outside hitter Christine Alftin, junior middle blocker Jenelle Jordan and sophomore defensive specialist Hannah Aguirre. Alftin has been struggling to start the season, leading the team with 31 errors, not including the Service Academy Classic. She hasn’t been converting her hits at a high percentage either, as she is lagging behind the team average of .185 with a .069 percentage.
Jordan provided a strong contribution when she came in near the end of the second set, giving the Bears some depth at middle blocker to back up Schonewise and senior Lara Vukasovic. Aguirre also saw some action for the first time in her Cal volleyball career and, like Jordan, provided continuity and communication with a much-needed spark off the bench.
But the Bears’ fortune turned on the them the next day against Air Force, as the team lost in the same fashion it beat Harvard and Army. Cal took a lead early on and then surrendered the final three sets to leave Arlington, Virginia, with a 2-1 record, losing the final match at nearby Ft. Myer Fitness Center on Saturday 21-25, 22-25, 25-21, 25-22, 15-13. The Falcons, like Cal the day before, dug themselves in a seemingly impossible-to-escape hole and then found themselves holding the Service Academy Classic trophy at the end of the tournament.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Cal volleyball coach Rich Feller to Cal Athletics. “For pretty much all of us, this will be the only time we get to go inside The Pentagon. It has been a really unique experience, and we are really grateful for this opportunity. It’s not a right that is bestowed upon us — it’s an amazing opportunity that we have been given.”
The match against Air Force didn’t proceed as positively for Cal, as the Bears were just points away from victory several times. After losing the third and fourth sets in a hard-fought struggle, they took a commanding 11-7 lead in the fifth. But the Falcons, led by former Cal assistant coach Matt McShane, railed off five straight points to take the lead for the first time since the opening of the set. After tying it up at 13-all, the Bears gave up consecutive points and lost their first match of the classic in disappointing fashion.
Winston Cho covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho