For a Cal volleyball team that remains an enigma — at least externally — after its spotty 6-4 preseason showing, opportunities for the team to prove itself nationally relevant currently come at an absolute premium. The outcomes of the Bears’ next few games, therefore, will be tremendously telling of the truth behind Cal’s supposedly great offseason improvement.
And while head coach Rich Feller and his team maintain confidence through both the ups and considerable downs, talk will remain cheap when the hated Cardinal, the No. 11 team in all the country, waltz into Haas Pavilion on Tuesday night looking to build on their 69-11 all-time record and eight-match win streak over the severe underdog Bears. Then, only volleyball can do the talking.
The team seems ready as ever.
“It’s an exciting time,” Feller said. “I think the team is anxious to see Stanford. They’re a top team this year, and they’re going to be the biggest team we see all year. And the challenges that go with the Pac-12 is something we always look forward to — this week of the year when we get started on it.”
The still-progressing Bears will have their hands as full Tuesday as they’re likely to be all year. Stanford stands at 6-2 thus far and maintains a 3-1 record against ranked opponents. It leads the entire country in blocks per set with 3.44 — a stat bolstered by the play of senior Inky Ajanaku and freshman Audriana Fitzmorris, who both place in the top 10 nationally in blocks. Ajanaku also places fourth in the country in hitting percentage with .432 — well ahead of Cal’s best percentage of .372 by senior Jenelle Jordan. Pacific, a team that this past weekend dismantled Cal 3-0 behind a ludicrous 75-46 total rally tally, was beaten 3-0 by the Cardinal the very next day.
There’s just no way around it: Stanford is among the nation’s very best, and it’ll take a huge performance from Cal to remain competitive. But these Bears, perhaps more than any of the recent years’ renditions, look capable of doing just that.
Hitter Maddie Haynes is quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with on the outside, just 10 matches into her first collegiate season. The 6-foot-4 freshman registered a career-high 18 kills in the Bears’ last outing — a victory over Saint Mary’s that included her scoring Cal’s last four points to take the match set. As she’s continued to overcome her rookie mistakes, Haynes has earned a longer leash in the eyes of her coaching staff, which is finally looking ready to fully cut loose the budding star.
“She’s going to be something special down the road,” Feller said.
The capricious play of the youngsters is also bolstered by the steadily improving veterans who surround them. Senior Alyssa Jensen paces the entire conference in assists per set with 11.54, and fellow seniors Maddy Kerr and the aforementioned Jordan have shown the growth that’s not only necessary individually but as a singular unit. If the Bears can fire on all cylinders Tuesday, like they’ve shown the fleeting ability to, they may just give the Cardinal a run for their money in Haas.
“The biggest takeaway (from last weekend) is that anyone can win on any given night,” Feller said.
The time has finally come for him and his team to prove it.
Austin Isaacsohn covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected].