Cal volleyball travels to face No. 14 Arizona, No. 6 Arizona State

Kevin Cheung/Staff

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At its best, Cal volleyball can compete with any team in the Pac-12. At its worst, the squad gets demolished and is lucky to steal a set.

The Bears arguably played their best volleyball of the young season when they lost to Stanford last week. They maintained constant communication, moved as a single unit and competed every possession — all against a bigger, higher-ranked team. Fast forward to their match earlier this week against UCLA, and it appeared as if an entirely different squad was playing at Haas Pavilion. Cal failed to play anywhere near the level it showed it was capable of against UCLA. Cal volleyball head coach Rich Feller could point to the lack of consistency on offense and primarily defense, but it ultimately came down to a lack of energy and team chemistry.

“It was mostly communication breakdown, and because of that, people were tentative,” Feller said. “When that happens, it just creates more chaos on the court, and I think there was a lot of that due to miscommunication and uncertainty.”

Cal cannot bring that sort of lackadaisical effort when it hits the road and plays No. 14 Arizona on Friday. And it especially cannot bring that effort when it plays No. 6 Arizona State on Sunday.

The Wildcats boast a relentless offense fueled by junior outside hitter Kalei Mau. She accounts for 4.53 of the 14.67 kills the Arizona offense gets off per set — nearly one-third of the squad’s total kills. And despite the fact that every opponent knows that the ball is going to end up in her hands to end the possession, the 6-foot-1 hitter still manages a respectable .214 hitting percentage. Cal will have to limit her offensive prowess if it is to have any chance at beating Arizona. Unlucky for the Bears, Mau has recorded a massive 42 kills in her past two matches.

The Bears will follow up what is likely to be a shootout against Arizona with a match against the stout defense of Arizona State. The Sun Devils nearly swept the Wildcats, 3-1, for their 12th straight victory earlier this season.

Arizona State boasts a versatile roster, much like Cal does. No one player accounts for an overwhelming portion of its offense, unlike its counterpart, Arizona. Four players on the Wildcats’ squad average more than two kills per set, and all of them manage to convert hits at a decent clip.

The Sun Devils are able to hit a high percentage, because they have two very capable setters on their squad. When senior setter Bianca Arellano heads to the bench to rest, Arizona State head coach Jason Watson substitutes in freshman setter Kylie Pickrell. This allows the Sun Devils to always have at least one skilled passer on the court at all times. Both average better than five assists per set, and because coach Watson plays them interchangeably, they are both well rested at all times.

Arizona State’s versatility is even more apparent on the defensive end. Despite being a relatively short team, the Sun Devils block 3.09 balls per set. They leverage their consistent blocking to force their opponents into errors and missed kills, explaining their opponents’ low hitting percentage of .108.

Cal comes into its weekend matches averaging fewer kills, assists, blocks and digs per set than both Arizona schools. What is even more concerning, however, is Cal’s tendency to get off to slow starts. The Bears have won the first set five times in their 13 matches. Not getting off to a slow start will be imperative if the Bears are to have any chance at stealing either of the matches.

“(Arizona and Arizona State) are two really good teams when they’re at home,” Feller said. “We have the advantage of having a day in between the two matches so we can refocus and reset. We need to make the most of that.”

Winston Cho covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho