Coming off two straight weekends in which it pulled off an upset against a higher-ranked opponent, Cal volleyball couldn’t keep its streak alive on its road trip this weekend. The Bears traveled to southern California to compete against two ranked teams in No. 25 USC and No. 15 UCLA but ultimately fell short in each of their matchups.
“The way we played against USC, we couldn’t expect to win,” said head coach Rich Feller. “The way we played against UCLA — one or two breaks here or there and I felt like we had a chance to win that match.”
Cal began its slate of matches this weekend against the Trojans on Friday. The Bears struggled to block and defend against USC’s outside hitters and, as a result, were overpowered by the Trojans’ offense. USC’s offensive scheme involves playing two setters, which means it has three attackers at all times, posing problems to the blockers on opposing teams. Blocking has been one of the Bears’ glaring weaknesses all season and proved to be particularly troublesome for them in this particular match.
In three sets, the Bears were outhit by a huge margin, recording a 0.109 hitting percentage while the Trojans hit 0.322. Cal received some notable contributions from senior Alyssa Jensen, who led all players in assists with 25, and freshman Bailee Huizenga, who led the team with nine kills, but ultimately lost in straight sets: 25-22, 25-21, 25-18.
“We just didn’t show up the way we needed to show up,” Feller said. “Not really a great explanation there — you have good days and bad days, and that sometimes just happens.”
On Sunday, the Bears competed against UCLA, looking to bounce back from their loss Friday. Cal looked much improved against the Bruins, and although it didn’t get the win, it put up the kind of performance against an elite squad that can boost a struggling team’s confidence. The Bears sharpened their defense and blocking, and they managed to combat UCLA’s offense — which uses two setters like USC’s — more effectively than they did against USC.
The first set of the match was a back-and-forth affair that involved 14 lead changes and six ties. After exchanging leads throughout the set, Cal found itself down 23-24. The Bears managed to tie the game up with a kill from junior Christine Alftin but allowed the Bruins to score on back-to-back plays to take the 1-0 lead. Cal maintained its high level of play into the second set and managed to tie up the match 1-1 by scoring three consecutive points to clinch the second set, 25-22.
After two closely contested sets, the Bears struggled to keep up with UCLA and lost each of the final two sets by a substantial margin. The Bruins responded to their second set loss by making adjustments to their lineup that helped give them an edge in the remainder of the game, while Cal struggled to finish on otherwise well-executed offensive plays.
“We had a few opportunities to get some kills, but we just couldn’t get some kills,” Feller said. “It was like a quarterback dropping back and having a couple of receivers open and the receiver just can’t quite catch the ball. That’s kind of the way it happened with us.”
Though the Bears lost to UCLA 3-1 — marking their second loss in a row — they walked away with the firm belief that they have the ability to beat elite teams in the Pac-12. There is evidently significant room for growth, both from an individual and team standpoint, but the team sees the gap between itself and those standing at the top of the conference as one that can be easily bridged.
“The lesson is keep working,” Feller said. “We’ve got 10 more matches in the season. We’ve got a chance to still win a couple of those or all of those, and that’s the way we’ve got to look at it.”