Cal volleyball set to open season at Molten Classic in Berkeley

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If you just scrolled through the recent blog post about Cal volleyball’s starting libero and team captain, senior Maddy Kerr, it would be hard to guess that she plays for a team that’s been predicted to finish 10th in the Pac-12 this year — one that’s collected an abysmal 19-42 record since her sophomore season. When she discusses the return of associate head coach Matt McShane, and celebrates that “vibes are just so good” around the gym, she embodies a confidence that has almost certainly been absent over Cal’s past couple campaigns.

Perhaps she feels the team is finally feeling ready to embark on the pesky postseason push that has eluded them since 2013. Perhaps this is just another rendition of the annual “this is our year” jargon that dissolves by October when the losses really begin to stack up. Or, maybe Kerr’s just looking forward to the Molten Classic this weekend in Berkeley, which is likely to be one of the few tournaments this year in which her perma-underdog Bears will be favored.

If the team is as ready as it claims to be to compete with the rest of their star-studded conference, the Bears will need to rely heavily on the developed skills of their veterans. Setter Alyssa Jensen, outside hitter Christine Alftin, middle blocker Jenelle Jordan and the aforementioned Kerr round out a returning starting unit that has as much on-court experience as just about anyone they’ll play this year. The deciding factor in Cal’s intended growth, however, remains the unknown value of the youth. Freshmen outside hitters Maddie Haynes and Bailee Huizenga, along with redshirt sophomore Ashten Smith-Gooden, are expected to get all the on-court opportunities necessary to make their mark — likely beginning Friday against Southern Utah.

While the Thunderbirds won’t fly into the Bay surrounded by much hoopla, they’re part of a program that’s been on the rise for years — which is more than their welcoming host can say. Last year, Southern Utah tied a program record for wins in a single season with 15, relying on defensive stalwart Ann Clappier to anchor what was at times a dominant front line. Clappier will be back this year for her senior season after she finished 13th in the nation last year in total blocks per game.

The glaring mystery with these Thunderbirds, however, lies in the only two setters they have on roster — a freshman and a sophomore. Alexis Averett and Rylee Rogers play what’s essentially the team’s “quarterback” role, dispensing passes to the veteran hitters and running the team’s offense as efficiently as possible. In that way, they play a position that relies almost entirely on volleyball IQ and a “feel” for the game. That’s not to say these two don’t have those unspeakable qualities that can get this team past the Bears — it’s just hard to count on two players with one single year of D1 experience between them to dismantle Cal’s defense, at least this early in the year and in a hostile environment.

UC Riverside presents an even more favorable matchup for the still-tuning-up Bears. The Highlanders went 10-19 last season, with what was still their best record since 2005. The team has one lone star in senior libero Maddie Hubbell, who earned an All-Big West nod in 2015. The problem that will likely be the team’s undoing not just on Saturday but all season, however, is the utter lack of experience around that very blue chip. Of the 18 players on roster, 14 are underclassmen and nine are freshmen. A team half-composed of totally new faces simply cannot stand, especially not against a Pac-12 team and especially not on the season’s opening weekend.

With the Bears so ready to move forward from what’s been an embarrassing past couple of seasons, this weekend will likely play the perfect opening to a year they hope to define by redemption. With two nationally subpar teams on the docket as well, it seems only right that Maddy Kerr is excited for the first rally of 2016. “It’s like in Semi-Pro,” she writes, “when Will Ferrell yells, ‘I’m so happy I can’t feel my arms!’”.

Austin Isaacsohn covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected].