On its first road trip of the season, the Cal women’s volleyball team played three matches in a span of fewer than 36 hours. The LBSU/UCI Mizuno Invitational was taxing for the Bears, who started their season just last week and still haven’t finalized their rotations, but also brought out their resilience.
Despite inconsistent play and Cal recording its first loss of the season against Long Beach State, the Bears showed fortitude in their second and third matches of the invitational and concluded the weekend with a 2-1 finish.
“Dropping one match was not something that we expected or hoped for,” said Cal head coach Rich Feller. “But it’s certainly understandable this early in the season with so many new players involved in the competition.”
The Bears opened the Mizuno Invitational on Friday against Long Beach State (2-3), in what was a tightly contested battle. Cal took the first set against the 49ers, 26-24, but failed to capitalize on its early lead. Long Beach State comfortably won the second set and edged out the Bears in the third and fourth sets by two points each to earn a 3-1 victory. The pivotal moment of the match came when Cal led 25-24 in the third set, just one point away from capturing the set, but failed to take advantage of its position.
Though the Bears didn’t come up with the big play they needed against the 49ers, they bounced back in their next match against Northeastern. Cal traded sets with the Huskies, winning the first and third while conceding the second and fourth. In the decisive fifth set, junior outside hitter Christine Alftin had several critical kills and freshman Bailee Huizenga came up with the match-clinching kill.
“She’s really held down a starting position since we got out there in competition a week ago and has proved herself to be very capable and had an outstanding tournament I think,” Feller said of Huizenga. “Sometimes the numbers will reflect what she did on the court and other times the numbers don’t look that spectacular. But the timing of when she made an impact sometimes was much more important than the total number of successes that she had.”
Huizenga, as well as freshman Maddie Haynes, joined Cal this spring and they’ve both shown themselves to be important offensive pieces to the team already. Both Huizenga and Haynes are still adjusting to the rigors of competition at a collegiate level, but both have double-digit kills performances under their belt and have been able to contribute timely plays that traditional counting stats don’t account for.
Feller showed his faith in Haynes and Huizenga by playing both in all four sets of Saturday evening’s match against UC Irvine on the Anteaters’ home court. The Bears’ sloppy play in the first set allowed UC Irvine to build an early lead in the match, 1-0. But Cal remained composed in the midst of a deficit and went on to win three straight sets to earn the match victory. Haynes recorded a career-high 13 kills while hitting at 0.300.
The Bears’ inconsistent play is characteristic of a team that is still figuring out its best lineups and is only two weeks into the season. With the strength of competition in the Pac-12 this year, however, Cal will need to continue to make improvements, especially in terms of their defense and blocking, quickly. Last season, the Bears ranked last in the Pac-12 in blocks and in opponent hitting percentage and the coaching staff is working on rectifying this.
“Pac-12 teams are by and large gigantic,” Feller said. “It gets a little bit different to be as efficient blocking and playing defense when you’re playing against that size, but those are the two major adjustments I think we need.”
Kapil Kashyap covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]