Cal volleyball faces No. 14 Arizona State, No. 19 Wildcats

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Last season’s Cal volleyball team set the bar fairly low for this year’s incarnation of the squad by recording only two Pac-12 victories. Starting the back end of their conference schedule, however, the Bears have already met that bar with their most recent win against Washington State and can only improve from there.

Winner of two of its last three matches, Cal (8-13, 2-8 Pac-12) continues its four-match homestand against Arizona State (17-4, 6-4) on Thursday night. This comes after losing to the Wildcats, 25-17, 25-19, 25-19, in a three-set shutout the last time the two teams met.

No. 14 Arizona State tipped off the Pac-12 play with four straight victories, including an Oct. 2 win against a highly touted Stanford squad, which won the Pac-12 title last season. But all four victories came at home, and the Sun Devils followed up their impressive start to the season with an equal number of losses on the road. One of those losses came against Washington State on Oct. 11 — a team that Cal routed for a three-set win this past weekend.

The Bears were playing the second of a two-match road trip to Arizona when they fell to then-No. 6 Arizona State. And considering they have yet to win a match on the road, the Sun Devils could very well be the first ranked team that Cal beats this season.

Senior middle blocker Lillian Schonewise will be a large piece of the puzzle if things are to break the right way for Cal. She managed only four kills on a low hitting percentage the last time Cal faced the Sun Devils, but she’s also been a force on the offensive end recently. Over the last four matches, where the Bears have gone .500, she’s averaged 3.53 kills on a .443 hitting percentage. Against an Arizona State team that hangs its hat on defense, Schonewise needs to continue her hot streak if the Bears are to produce on offense.

With Schonewise anchoring the offense, junior middle blocker Jenelle Jordan will have to stay disciplined on the defensive end. She recorded eight kills against the Sun Devils earlier this season, but it was her five blocks that kept Cal competitive in the beginning portion of the match. Luckily for the Bears, Jordan has been scorching hot as of late, hammering 11 kills against Utah.

While Arizona State has been treading water in the standings, No. 19 Arizona (14-8, 4-6 Pac-12) has done a good job staying afloat in the brutal Pac-12. The Wildcats recently followed up their worst hitting performance in four years with an easy three-set victory against Utah.

Fortunately for the Bears, they’ll be facing Arizona on Sunday afternoon, just two days after the Wildcats square off against a very tough Stanford team. If Cal can leverage the Wildcats’ fatigue, the squad may just have a chance at slowing down their relentless offense headed by junior outside hitter Kalei Mau.

Only three Arizona players average more than two kills per set, compared with Cal’s six, but Mau has already recorded an insane 353 kills this season — more than one-third of Cal’s total. Beating the Wildcats will come down to limiting Mau’s touches at the net while getting Schonewise and middle blocker Lara Vukasovic good looks in the open court.

The Bears lost fairly easily to the Arizona schools earlier this year on their first road trip of the season. But with a couple of months of playing together under their belt and a solidified lineup, they project to do much better this time around.

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