Cal volleyball faces non-conference opponents in WWC/Pac-12 Challenge

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In collegiate women’s volleyball, the Pac-12 is loaded with talent. So, for every team in the Pac-12, the early part of the schedule that precedes conference play is significantly easier than conference play itself. Need proof? The Bears went 3-17 against opponents in their conference last year and 6-5 against non-conference opponents.

“It’s a whole different story once we get into the Pac-12 play,” said Rich Feller, head coach of the Cal women’s volleyball team.

Before entering the rigors of Pac-12 play, the Cal women’s volleyball team will be traveling this weekend to compete in its final slate of non-conference matchups of the season in the WCC/PAC-12 Challenge. The Bears will head north to Stockton, California, to face off against the University of Pacific (5-5) on Friday. On Saturday, they will play against another member of the WCC, Saint Mary’s (5-4), in Moraga, California. Cal has history with both of its opponents in recent years, which should spice up this weekend’s festivities.

In their first match of the weekend, the Bears look to overcome their two-game losing streak to the Tigers. Pacific has dealt Cal losses in each of the last two seasons, but both teams look dramatically different than their 2015 selves. Last year, the Tigers completed the non-conference portion of their schedule with a 9-3 record, while they currently hold a 5-5 record for the same part of this year’s schedule.

The Bears’ 5-3 record this season seems to align closely with their 6-5 record in non-conference play last year, but the makeup of their roster differs greatly. Cal suffered the loss of some vital seniors but was fortunate to have some additions to its team who have already started contributing. Bailee Huizenga and Maddie Haynes, newcomers to the team who enrolled in classes last spring, have already become notable cogs to the team’s offense as hitters. Senior Jenelle Jordan and junior Christine Alftin continue to lead the Bears on the offensive end with 91 and 90 kills on the season, respectively.

“Those are huge bonuses — to see a couple freshmen come in and really put up some good numbers and some quality time and see the confidence they got in their game,” Feller said. “Very excited for the future with those two gaining experience.”

The Bears have beaten the Gaels in each of their last six meetings, including a 3-0 blowout almost exactly a year ago in a season where both teams finished last in their respective conferences. This year, once again, the two teams find themselves in similar positions to each other — they’re expected to improve marginally but still finish near the bottom of their highly competitive conferences. In terms of contenders, the Pac-12 currently features four top-25 teams (No. 11 UCLA, No. 12 Stanford, No. 21 Southern California and No. 24 Oregon) while the WCC has two ranked teams: No. 9 BYU and No. 17 Santa Clara.

Cal can draw confidence from its winning streak against Saint Mary’s, but Saturday’s matchup will be hard-fought. The Gaels recently beat UC Riverside in four sets, a team that the Bears needed all five sets to dispatch almost three weeks ago. Saint Mary’s also has a talented group of outside hitters, highlighted by sophomore Lindsey Knudsen, a 2015 All-Conference Freshman Team selection in the WCC last year. The Bears will need to continue to exhibit the improved defense that they’ve shown in the early weeks of the season.

“Our defense and blocking can give us a few more chances to win games, to stay in games longer that we do have a chance to win,” Feller said. “We’re able to transition better and get our offense going when we can defend and block.”

Kapil Kashyap covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]