Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. That’s how Cal volleyball head coach Rich Feller described the pair of performances he saw from the Bears this weekend.
On Friday, the Bears (7-9) looked disjointed and lost to Utah (13-4) in straight sets. But, Cal played its best volleyball of the season against No. 19 Colorado (10-6) on Sunday, finally capturing its first conference victory. The win marked the end of a five-game losing streak for the Bears, who played two matches at home after playing three of its first four conference matches on the road .
“There’s no denying that this is a huge win for us,” Feller said. “You wait and wait and wait for that first win. So, to get this one before we hit another weekend — it’s a huge win for us.”
Against Utah, Cal had an uncharacteristically poor passing night, and as a result, the team struggled to find an offensive rhythm. The Bears had just 35 kills on 30 assists, while the Utes recorded 46 kills on 43 assists. Though Cal was competitive in the first set, losing 25-23, the Bears slowly tailed off the rest of the night and were beat handily in the final set, 25-16. Redshirt sophomore Ashten Smith-Gooden led Cal in kills for the match with nine — her lowest total in the last three matches.
“Friday night, we were not anywhere close to playing this well” Feller said, comparing Friday night’s performance to Sunday’s performance. “And it’s a shame, because if we played this well, we had a chance to win two (matches) this weekend.”
The Bears moved on quickly from the loss to Utah and finally pieced together the performance they needed on Sunday afternoon. After paying close attention to its defense and blocking in practice, Cal defended and blocked as well as it has all season against the Buffaloes.
In the first set, both teams struggled to gain separation from each other. The set featured 16 ties, the last of which was at 22-22. When the Bears needed a point the most, junior Christine Alftin rose to the occasion. She recorded a timely kill that put the Bears up 23-22, and Cal clinched the set at 25-22 with a block from freshman Maddie Haynes.
The second set played almost identically to the first, tightly contested until the very end. There were 15 ties in the set and once again, Alftin broke the final tie at 23-23, with a kill to put the Bears up. Cal won the second set 25-23, seizing a commanding 2-0 lead in the match. At the end of two sets, Alftin led the team in digs and kills, with nine and 10, respectively.
The Bears’ offense stalled in the third set, unable to penetrate the Buffaloes’ superb blocking. Cal remained resilient throughout, chasing down long shots to keep them in play and managed to earn several points with its scrappy play. But, it hit at just a 0.097 clip in the third set and managed only nine kills. Ultimately, the Bears conceded the third set, 25-18, with the seven-point deficit marking their largest of the match.
In the fourth set, Cal sophomore Belen Castillo, who led the Bears in kills for the match with 16, tallied seven kills to help lead her team to victory. Cal won the match 3-1, and ended the night with 71 digs and 14 blocks. The win was an affirmation of the defensive focus the Bears have taken in their preparation but offers short-lived comfort to a team that still has a grueling schedule left.
“The Pac-12 is the best conference,” Feller said. “We expect good matches, there’s no let up ever. There’s no gimmes in the Pac-12.”
Kapil Kashyap covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]