Facing the left side of the court, junior setter Alyssa Jensen bumped the ball over her head and to her right. Senior outside hitter Nikki Gombar, realizing Jensen’s misdirection, took a step forward, leaped and swung at the ball — all in one motion, aiming at the fingertips of Stanford’s towering blockers. The ball landed out of bounds, and the Bears huddled together to celebrate their hard-fought point.
But the referee didn’t see the ball scrape off the fingertips of the Cardinals’ blockers and signaled for Stanford to receive the point. Cal volleyball head coach Rich Feller, usually so calm and collected, stood up and started to shout that the call was wrong. The sideline referee then interjected, correcting the call and giving the Bears the point that cut Stanford’s lead to four points in the decisive third set.
Coach Feller was livid at the referees, not because he thought that Cal (6-6, 0-1 Pac-12) couldn’t get back that point, but because Stanford (7-2, 1-0 Pac-12) was seemingly scoring at will. If the Bears didn’t cut the margin, then Stanford would continue to pelt them with kills and proceed to lose their season-opener at home without winning a single set. Trailing by as much as five points, Cal stole that eventful third set but ultimately fell to the Cardinal, 25-23, 27-25, 20-25, 25-16, at Haas Pavilion.
“This was sort of David against Goliath,” Feller said. “We had to keep pitching those rocks at them and wear them down. I’m not sure we completely wore them down, but we definitely challenged them. This is the best our team’s played in a long time.”
Stanford played the part of Goliath, not only because of its size but because it leverages the team members’ heights with ability and even better coaching. The Cal defenders tried to dig and block as many balls as they could, but the storm of meteor-like kills and hits never stopped. Stanford’s freshman outside hitter Hayley Hodson punished the Bears with 18 kills on a massive 35 attempts. But even more impressive was its senior outside hitter Brittany Howard, who recorded a .462 hitting percentage on 14 kills.
Because the Cardinal established such a ferocious attack with their kills, that opened up their offense to a variety of different shots. One common play they ran with 6-foot-8-inch sophomore middle blocker Merete Lutz was a misdirection where she appeared as if she was going to set up a different hitter. But instead of passing, Lutz simply tipped the ball over the net at the unprepared Cal defense that was preparing a block for the kill.
Cal’s defense may have slipped at times, but the Bears displayed a toughness that proved they can stay in any match, regardless of their opponent. Despite only recording three blocks, Cal stayed on its toes and was able to dig 53 kill attempts. Junior defensive specialist Sabrina Blackwell and junior libero Maddy Kerr led the charge on defense with 13 digs apiece.
The Bears’ offensive attack was rolling at times too, especially when senior middle blocker Lara Vukasovic was able to get the ball on the pins. She was able to tool Stanford’s block and find creases in the Cardinals’ defense for 13 kills on an impressive .346 hitting percentage.
“Just to see our team come together and play like that was great,” Feller said. “We finally established a little bit of consistency with our lineup and found the right pieces to the puzzle. To see them play as a unit like that was gratifying.”
Winston Cho covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho