Try as it might to climb, the Cal volleyball team can’t seem to find stable footing on the conference ladder. Try as it might to find consistency, the 8-12 squad has thus far only been able to string together losses. Try as they might to escape, the Bears still find themselves in purgatory.
Sitting at 10th in the Pac-12, a full conference game ahead of Oregon State at 11th but two behind Colorado, the Bears will need to rely on two straight losses from the 12-8 Buffaloes if they wish to advance at all in the standings, which seems unlikely — but not as unlikely as Cal completing its end of the bargain, which includes beating No. 7 Washington on Friday and No. 18 Washington State on Saturday.
Simply put, if the treacherous path up relies on Cal taking down the best and tied-for-second-best teams in the very best volleyball conference in all the country, it’ll need to play better than in any of its previous best outings. The team’s still in the lab, trying desperately to find that riddle’s answer.
“I think there’s still going to be some more lineup changes,” said Cal head coach Rich Feller. “The starting team hasn’t been able to produce the wins that we need or the results we need, so we’re still kind of in a state of trying to find that magic formula.”
Feller and his shape shifting units will need to find their season’s most ideal form, and quickly, when the big Dawgs of the Pac-12 ride into Berkeley. The 18-3 Huskies are not only the conference’s créme de la créme, but at the lofty No. 7 spot, they’re also the highest ranked Pac-12 team in the AVCA Coaches’ Top 25. Washington was riding a “smockin’” hot seven-game win streak before falling to Stanford on Wednesday and hadn’t lost in straight sets since 2013.
Washington showcases an impressive arsenal of hitters, as it not only leads the conference in aces per set but also comes second in team hitting percentage with a cumulative .269. Three Huskies can currently claim 200-plus kills on the season: Tia Scambray has 209, while Crissy Jones owns 240 and Courtney Schwan has an astounding 278 — good for the sixth highest individual total in the Pac-12.
The overpowering nature of the Huskies offense, however, can find predominant attribution not in its very full toolbelt of shiny weapons but in the downright stunning play of junior setter Tanner Bailey — who leads the conference in assists per set with 10.69.
If Washington will show the Bears how to run a top-flight offense, Washington State will give Cal a grandiose display of defense. The No. 18 Cougars not only lead the conference in opponent’s hitting percentage (.145), they also pace the Pac-12 in blocks (3.41 per set), digs allowed to opponents (only 12.51 per set) and are second in kills and assists by opponents (11.75 and 11.04 per set, respectively). The fearsome troupe is led up front by sophomores Claire Martin and Taylor Mims, who rank second and third in the conference in blocks.
With all the coming commotion, it can be easy to attribute Feller’s planned lineup tinkerings to an aimless team being, well, aimless.
“It’s not what we want to be doing this late, in the second half of the Pac-12, but it’s just the fact that we haven’t found how to win two games in a row,” Feller said. “You can expect to see a lot of different people playing, unless we go out and win three straight sets — then it’ll be the same team from beginning to end.”
But with the Bears readying to play two of the nation’s best, the ground on which their season stands is as shaky as it has ever been. Consecutive losses have dimmed the ray of hope that came with upsetting Colorado and Arizona within a single week and left the team in the deepest hole it’s seen. All they can do now is try their very best to climb out.