After a scorching start to the first set ending in a resounding 25-22 win, Cal volleyball found itself in the rare position of taking a 1-0 lead going into the locker room. The Bears continued their hot start and built a healthy lead early in the second set, but Arizona never relented and stayed within striking distance.
The Wildcats found their opportunity to strike following a kill by their own junior outside hitter Kalei Mau. They then forced Cal into an error and gained the lead three possessions later. The Bears got back in front and even took a two point lead at 21-19 with a block by senior middle blockers Lara Vukasovic and Lillian Schonewise. Arizona, however, got the last laugh, scoring the final six points along with easily taking the last two sets.
The final count against No. 14 Arizona (12-4, 2-2 Pac-12) on Friday night, 22-25, 25-21, 25-17, 25-15, belies just how close the match really was. The Bears (6-9, 0-4 Pac-12) were a couple of errors or service aces away from stealing the second set against the Wildcats in which case the rest of the match would have proceeded much differently, possibly in a victory.
The box score when Cal played No. 6 Arizona State, however, much better reflects the team’s struggles Sunday morning. The Sun Devils ran the Bears off the court, 25-17, 25-19, 25-19, finishing the match quickly in a sweep.
“There were times when we were doing everything we could do and Arizona State was just better,” said Cal volleyball head coach Rich Feller. “But there were other times when we did some good things and scored some points and made some plays happen. We’re too inconsistent though. Arizona State put pressure on us and forced us into mistakes.”
Coming into their match against Arizona, the Bears had lost the first set six times out of their 15 matches. They needed to shake off their slow starts if they were to have any chance at slowing down Arizona’s high-powered offense. They put themselves in good position to stay competitive and possibly win after claiming the first set, but slowed down considerably to end the match.
Despite a sluggish start, the Wildcats continued to pound the rock over the course of the match for a total of 66 kills. Cal was preoccupied covering Mau, Arizona’s fulcrum on offense, who recorded 19 kills on a .245 hitting percentage. But by focusing their attention on the outside hitter, the Bears opened up creases in their defense, allowing the Wildcats’ middle blocker tandem of senior Halli Amaro and redshirt sophomore McKenzie Jacobson to kill the ball 26 times on an insane .619 hitting percentage.
Two days later, facing an Arizona State team that prides itself on defense, Cal struggled to find any sort of consistency on offense. The Sun Devils held the Bears to a paltry .105 hitting percentage while finding spurts of offense themselves off of their 42 kills. Arizona State also blocked and hit the ball at a respectable clip, recording 10 blocks and a .326 hitting percentage.
There is not much for the Bears to hang their hat on after their disappointing road trip to Arizona. Junior libero Maddy Kerr recorded a season-high 27 digs, but that comes with letting the Wildcats get 66 kills. The most impressive outing by a Bear was most likely junior middle blocker Jenelle Jordan, who had 19 kills over the course of the two matches along with five blocks against Arizona State.
“We’re playing some really solid volleyball a lot of the time,” Feller said. “It’s just that when we don’t play solid volleyball, it hurts us in bunches. I would like to see a little more consistency and confidence that if we play well early, we can continue to do so late in the game.”
Winston Cho covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho