The next time the Cal volleyball squad suits up for a match, Haas Pavilion will be overflowing with television cameras and bright lights — all pointing directly at the Bears. And if that’s not enough, the team’s first match to inaugurate Pac-12 play will be against rival Stanford in the Big Spike.
The gritty Bears (6-5) will tip off conference play against an imposing Stanford (6-2) team that expects to defend its conference title. In a preseason Pac-12 coaches’ poll, the Cardinal was voted to most likely repeat, while the Bears are projected to not qualify for the tournament for the second season in a row.
“This is the real deal,” said Cal volleyball coach Rich Feller. “Stanford is one of the top teams in the country year in and year out. They are always the giant. We have to overcome the underdog feeling and play up to their level. But we’re at home, and hopefully we’ll get to show our stuff on television.”
Stanford has consistently been a force in Pac-12 volleyball, returning three All-Americans in the hopes of claiming its 17th all-time regular season title. And outside the roster’s proven talent, hall-of-fame coach John Dunning was able to snag the No. 1 recruit in the country, outside hitter Hayley Hodson, to help bolster the team’s title aspirations.
But the Cardinal was not without some offseason losses. Stanford took a major hit when senior middle blocker Inky Ajanaku — a National Player of the Year candidate — injured her ankle competing internationally over the summer. She is not expected to play for the remainder of the season.
Missing Ajanaku on the roster, however, is alleviated by the addition of Hodson. Despite having only the offseason and eight nonconference matches to adjust to playing with her teammates, Hodson has already carved out a significant role on the Cardinal. In 27 sets, she leads the team with 92 kills, averaging 3.41 per set. The 6-foot-3-inch outside hitter is also crucial on defense, boasting 2.59 digs and 0.81 blocks per set. Her gaudy statistics come against quality competition, too, as she was able to record 16 kills on a .452 hitting percentage against Penn State, the No. 1 ranked team in the Big Ten.
“I think we have to use their strengths and use their weaknesses,” said Cal junior middle blocker Jenelle Jordan. “Because they are such a big team, that’s good for our hitting. We’ll give them a run for their money, because not all of their kills are going to go down. We’re going to be the scrappy team that keeps the point alive and keeps the rally going.”
A point of emphasis for the Bears against Stanford and other bigger, more physical teams will be tooling the block. This is when the hitters aim for the fingertips of the blockers so that the ball ricochets off their hand and out of bounds. Cal will need to do this effectively if it wants to get points on the board Tuesday against the taller Stanford blockers.
“Everyone is better,” Feller said. “Two matches a week, and every team is better than anybody we’ve played. For that, our game has to be better. For us to be successful in the Pac-12, we have to play a better level of volleyball, pick up our game and play as a team.”
Winston Cho covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho