When the Cal volleyball team takes the court Friday, it will likely discover some extra gravity in its opening performance of the Cal Classic, even though the early games of September aren’t exactly the ones that will define Cal’s young season.
2016 Olympian and former Bear Carli Lloyd will be in Haas Pavilion, and will be honored on the freshly dubbed “Carli Lloyd Night.” Her former team also carries a 4-1 record into the weekend, which is a fast start for a squad that certainly needed one with the big dogs of the Pac-12 waiting on the horizon.
Considering all this, the Bears will also be facing their first ranked opponent of the year on Saturday, when No. 19 Santa Clara will try to build on its 6-0 record against a Cal team that has been cannon fodder for the nation’s best in recent years.
But the Bears are still playing with house money. Not much is expected of them, so any successes — no matter how early — are very promising for a team that’s trying to blend a good send-off for its seniors with the healthy incubation of its freshmen. So, for now, improvement isn’t the main goal: It’s the only one.
“We’re still working on a lot. Our transition game has to pick up, but the thing we’re working on most right now is blocking,” said Cal head coach Rich Feller. “We put up good blocking numbers in one of our matches last weekend — but really, that was Jenelle (Jordan) putting up good blocking numbers that added to the team numbers. Overall, I think that’s one of our main focuses, because around blocking comes defense.”
Jordan has been — in a word — brilliant. The senior blocker has opened 2016 on an absolute tear, setting new career highs for kills in each of the first four matches of the season and setting a new personal record for blocks in the fifth. The MVP of the Molten Classic looks to have finally become the stalwart that her coaches thought she was destined to become.
“Great team leader. People love her — she’s vocal, she’s outgoing. She’s matured into that senior athlete that you always dream about,” Feller said.
Jordan will need to be on her now-usual A-game again this weekend, when her team does battle against West Virginia, Grand Canyon and Santa Clara in just two days.
After dropping both of its first two matches, 0-3, West Virginia has picked up a bit, rattling off three wins in its last four contests. The Mountaineers are led by freshman Payton Caffrey, who currently places fourth in the nation for kills per set with 5.25. The lack of extraordinary talent around Caffrey, however, keeps the Mountaineers’ offense a bit one-dimensional, and if Jordan and her roughriders can hone in, it should be a quick match.
The Bears will next face Grand Canyon — a team perhaps in even more of a rebuilding mode than Cal. First year head coach Tim Nollan brings valuable experience to the Lopes, having coached at perennial powerhouse USC for nine years before moving to the desert, and junior Natalie Tardy was named to the preseason All-WAC team. The team still looks to have too many moving pieces to have sustained success — but then again, so does Cal. This match will likely come down to game plan implementation and execution for two teams that are still desperately trying to find their bearings.
The game to circle, though, remains the bout with No. 19 Santa Clara. The Broncos are off to their best start since 2005, and have taken down No. 7 USC and No. 21 Louisville on their way into Berkeley. With the Bears trying to gauge the progress they have made over the summer, Santa Clara will stand as an effective measuring stick for the growth of the program.
“(Santa Clara) is always fighting to get wins against the Pac-12,” Feller said. “I think there’s going to be a little more pressure. I think it’s going to be an exciting volleyball match.”
Austin Isaacsohn covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected].