Very little was expected of Cal volleyball to start the year after a 2-18 conference record last season. It is safe to say that expecting little of the Bears, who have just three conference victories, is a safe move as they come up on their last two matches of the season against a pair of top-10 opponents.
On opposite ends of the standings, Cal (9-20, 3-15 Pac-12) and No. 6 Stanford (20-6, 14-4) will square off Wednesday night to kick off the Bears’ last road trip of the season. They will follow that up with another match against a top-tier opponent in No. 1 USC two days later in Los Angeles.
The Bears have been struggling largely because of their inability to score efficiently, combined with their defensive ineptitude. They average a mediocre 13.07 kill per set but allow their opponents a .248 hitting percentage — fourth worst in the conference.
To stay competitive, it is vital that Cal win one of the first two sets Wednesday night. The Bears have lost 42 of the 58 first and second sets they have played but are much better in the third and fourth sets. Stanford, on the other hand, has lost just 10 of the 26 first sets it has played this season but has proved vulnerable in the latter half of matches. If the squad can steal one of the opening sets, Cal has a shot at an upset.
Stanford boasts a well-rounded roster, highlighted by three players averaging close to or better than three kills per set. Outside hitter Hayley Hodson, the No. 1 recruit in the nation, leads the squad’s trio of top hitters with 346 kills on the season, with redshirt sophomore Merete Lutz close behind her with 282 kills. But combined with her efficient scoring — she is averaging a .386 hitting percentage — Lutz is, perhaps, Stanford’s most dominant striker.
No top-10 team would be complete without a formidable defense. The Cardinal holds its opponents to a paltry .199 hitting percentage while hitting .274 itself. Stanford also averages 2.89 blocks per set, headed by its physical front line of defenders.
The Cardinal blockers, however, will have their hands full covering the hot hand of Cal redshirt senior middle blocker Lillian Schonewise. Cal’s most proved target, Schonewise is averaging a .371 hitting percentage — good enough for fifth in the Pac-12 — on 3.08 kills per set. That figure balloons to 3.30 kills per set on an even better .381 hitting percentage in conference matches, when the competition is toughest. While Cal has two other players with more than 200 kills on the season, no other Bear comes close to Schonewise’s efficiency and consistency.
Schonewise attracting so much attention from the Cardinal defense may also free up senior middle blocker Lara Vukasovic, averaging 2.63 kills per set on a .231 hitting percentage. Her move to outside hitter at the beginning of this season opened a spot in the starting lineup for junior middle blocker Jenelle Jordan. Her activity and effort up front have proved valuable, as she has stuffed the stat sheet this season with close to two kills and a block per set.
To beat Stanford on Wednesday night, Cal will have to beat the Cardinal in the margins. While not dominant in any one specific area, Stanford averages more assists, kills and service aces and a better hitting percentage than its opponents. The Bears will need to play a clean game with few errors to come up with their fourth conference victory.
Winston Cho covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho