The slaying of the No. 19 Buffaloes was undoubtedly the high point of the still definitely young but also definitely brutal season of the Cal volleyball team (7-9). For one golden evening, the Bears dug, set and spiked in the very closest thing to perfect harmony that they have all year. Head coach Rich Feller, though, saw it coming: All his team had to do was focus on the six girls on its half of the court.
“I think the team’s attitude tonight was ‘Let’s focus on ourselves,’ which is what we need to do,” Feller said. “So, the other team would do something, and they would know what they had to do to adjust. They just did a great job of that. I thought the coaching staff did a great job, but I think the team really picked it up a notch.
“They matured a little bit tonight.”
The Bears, at least for the moment, could enjoy the sweet syrup of the conference tree. But one game is still one game, and while Cal may have proved that it can pull a rabbit out of a hat against a team that it had every reason to lose to, the Bears will soon face an equally challenging task: beating the rare team that they should.
Before facing off with the clear big brother in the state of Arizona’s sibling not-quite rivalry, Cal will play host Arizona State on Friday — the only team currently lower than the Bears in the Pac-12. But the (sun) devil, as always, lies in the detail.
While Arizona State’s 7-11 record and 0-6 register in conference games aren’t pretty, the Sun Devils have had to endure perhaps the toughest opening weeks that a poor team can. Now, it’s one thing to start a season with 14 straight road games, traveling 10,354 miles since late August, which the Devils have done, but it’s another thing entirely to do it in the Pac-12, a conference so strong that it recently placed eight teams in the top 29 of the NCAA RPI — which they have also, somehow, done.
It therefore becomes easier, after noticing its path, to understand the eight-game losing streak that Arizona State will be eager to snap against Cal, a team who in just its last outing got a nasty five-straight-loss monkey off its own back. The Bears will need to prove they can sustain.
They’ll be helped to that end by the electric environment that they will play maestro to. Friday is “Be The Match” night in Haas Pavilion, in honor of redshirt freshman Savannah Rennie, an impressive recruit out of San Diego who was diagnosed with Congenital Hepatic Fibrosis before she could play a single rally as a Bear. After receiving liver transplant surgery not even five months ago, she’s back at full health and will look to continue to settle in after logging her first collegiate appearance and kill last weekend.
The Bears will then tangle with the 12-6 Wildcats, a team that’s continuing a Californian road trip that included decisive victories in L.A. against No. 22 USC and No. 18 UCLA. And while Arizona State is an alright team that’s looked just bad, Arizona is a great team that’s looked just good.
After drifting in and mostly out of the lineup all season, the Wildcats’ top three hitters have found full health together. Katarina Pilepic, Kalei Mau and Kendra Dahlke shared the court for the first time all season in the Cats’ recent 2-0 run and 6-1 rally advantage against the Trojans and Bruins.
Dahlke, in particular, has really found her offensive groove. After a freshman campaign that saw her achieve four double-digit kill performances, her kill count has ballooned to more than four per set this year, good for third in the conference.
And while Dahlke has become one of Arizona’s most consistent performers, she’s flanked by a killer even more reliable. Mau has led the team in kills in nearly 80 percent of the 43 games in which she’s seen action since 2015. In that span, she’s also claimed nine 20-plus kill productions.
The Arizona offense has carried it to many victories this year, and the Cal defense — the same one that just enjoyed the 16-kill and six-block coming out party of sophomore middle blocker Belen Castillo against Colorado — will need to be on its p’s and q’s again to find another unlikely Pac-12 upset. And then again, and again and again, if the usually quiet Bears are really ready to finally make some conference noise.