Cal volleyball readies for double-header at Washington State, Washington

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This time last year, the Cal volleyball team was 14 losses deep into a two-win conference season. Fast forward to this season, and the Bears already have three victories in the Pac-12, one of them coming against a ranked team in then-No. 14 Arizona State.

Cal (9-16, 3-11 Pac-12) has a chance to take another step back to the top rung of the volleyball elite on a road trip to Washington over the weekend. The squad starts its double-header against Washington State (14-12, 3-11) on Friday and finishes against No. 3 Washington (22-2, 12-2) on Sunday afternoon.

Dating back to 2002, the Bears boast a 12-match winning streak against Washington State in Pullman. Junior middle blocker Jenelle Jordan led Cal to a three-set victory against the Cougars on Oct. 25 when they came to play at Haas Pavilion. She matched her career high that night with eight blocks while also registering eight kills.

“(The streak) just goes to show that we’ve been successful on the road at Pullman,” said Cal volleyball head coach Rich Feller. “Those victories are never easy. Those are always tough matches. It’s an uncomfortable place to play, because it’s a small arena and the student section is right next to you. We hope to sustain it.”

The box score against Washington State earlier this season may read that the Bears only needed three sets to dispatch the Cougars, but it doesn’t reflect the high intensity of the match. Two sets went into extra points, and Cal barely fended off Washington State in the first set after it knotted up the score, needing back-to-back kills from freshman outside hitter Belen Castillo to win it.

Washington State’s top scorer, junior outside hitter Kyra Holt, was also missing in action when the two teams faced off. She leads the team in kills per set with 4.04 on a .199 hitting percentage. In her absence, freshman outside hitter McKenna Woodford hammered 13 kills and dug six balls against Cal. As long as the Bears can contain those two hitters and score at a decent clip themselves, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t expect to see their 13th straight victory in Pullman.

Washington, however, will be a completely different beast than its in-state rival. The Huskies stomped the Bears, 25-15, 30-28, 25-16, last time they visited Berkeley on Oct. 23 to end the first half of their conference schedule. After three consecutive, five-set nailbiters in Haas Pavilion from 2012-14, Washington senior middle blocker Lianna Sybeldon and sophomore outside hitter Tia Scambray led their squad to an easy victory. The duo combined for 19 kills on 30 swings, but even more impressively, recorded just one error between them on the night.

“Washington is a machine,” Feller said. “We haven’t really looked at them yet, but obviously we know what they’re going to bring. I thought we had an opportunity earlier in the season when we played them here. They’re a really good team right now.”

Although they needed six set-points to dispatch Cal in the second set, the Huskies dominated the Bears in the first and third. Cal was only able to block one ball while Washington recorded nine. This contributed to the Bears’ paltry .121 hitting percentage, compared to the Cougars’ .388.

“We need to eliminate unforced errors and make the most of when they make a slight mistake and take advantage of that, transitioning into a kill,” Feller said. “We’ve been working on a lot of small ball and making sure the first contact is solid and the second and third is even better.”

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