The No. 9 Stanford shellacking was tough, and the No. 21 Oregon obliteration was tougher. The Cal volleyball team is in a hole, and it’s difficult to foresee an immediate future that doesn’t involve it getting buried a bit deeper. As many kills as Bailee Huizenga racks up, assists Alyssa Jensen dishes out or digs Maddy Kerr retrieves, the considerable cracks in the Bears’ armor have been exposed thus far in a 6-6 season that is, despite the hardships, still deceptively young.
But when it comes to the Pac-12, the wicked are very seldom granted rest — no matter how necessary.
Cal has taken blow after blow from a seemingly unending string of powerhouse teams that litter the western uberconference — one that recently qualified a season-high eight teams to the AVCA Coaches Top 25 Poll. After going 0-2 to open conference play and being outscored 174-141 since its last victory, the squad will this weekend embark on a tour of Washington — a state that, for the reeling Bears, represents only more fire and brimstone.
Cal will begin its very long weekend Thursday, when it visits the well-protected kennel of No. 7 Washington.
The Huskies sit pretty at 11-1 this year, having won 34 season sets to their opponent’s nine. The team features a prolific offense centered around setter Bailey Tanner. The junior from San Clemente, California is second in the conference in assists per set with 10.7, and the trio of outside hitters she so expertly feeds have become a three-headed monster capable of tearing through just about any defense in the nation.
Courtney Schwan paces the Huskies with 155 kills, but is followed closely by Crissy Jones and Tia Scambray, who have put down 142 and 133, respectively. For perspective, the most prolific killer on the Bears’ roster, the aforementioned Huizinga, has registered 135.
After its date with the Dawgs, Cal will do battle with Washington State on Sunday. And because No. 17 Washington State is currently lower ranked than Washington, it seems the Bears may have an easier — albeit still arduous — road to a Pacific Northwest victory that goes through Pullman. But there may not be a team playing better in all the country than the white-hot Cougars.
Before Sept. 21, the Huskies hadn’t lost a home game since 2014 — 19 straight victories in Hec Edmundson Pavilion. Washington also sits at fifth in the Pac-12, just below the four-team logjam for first. The ones that rode into Seattle and downed the Dawgs — and now control their own destiny for the conference crown — are those frisky Cougars.
Washington State has played homewrecker in its recent stretch, downing both then-No. 4 Washington and then-No.9 UCLA in only three days — and doing both on the road. Going into the hostile environments of Seattle and Los Angeles highlights the grit of a Cougar squad that has finally clawed its way into the top 25, despite sitting atop the Pac-12 for weeks.
Such strong performances earned the team extended national recognition as well, as Kyra Holt won the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week while Claire Martin took home the title of Defensive Player of the Week. Holt registered 39 kills in the week for 4.33 per set, and also won ESPNW’s Player of the Week. The 6-foot-4-inch Martin had 16 blocks last week and leads her team with 1.59 per set.
Such success is the manifestation of sort of balance that makes No. 17 Washington State a contender amid such strong conference competition. Cal, however, is still trying to find its bearings.
The coming road trip will be very telling for the Bears. Being exposed to two of the best teams in the nation will undoubtedly test the not-quite-established mettle of a Cal team that has displayed some ability to hold ground against strong competition. The forthcoming sink or swim will reveal the true expectations for the quickly slipping away 2016.
Austin Isaacsohn covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected].