“Consistency.” It’s a word that Cal volleyball head coach Rich Feller uses almost every week to describe what his young, inexperienced team needs to work on.
The Bears’ inability to maintain a consistent level of high quality play was once again on display this weekend, when they played Arizona and Arizona State on the road. Cal lost against both opponents to extend its current losing streak to six matches.
“We couldn’t consistently string points together or plays together,” Feller said. “There was some really good volleyball going on. And then just maybe some really bad volleyball for very short periods of time that hurt us when we’ve strung together some good plays.”
The weekend’s results were disappointing for the Bears, but the margins of victory can be misleading. Cal lost in four sets to Arizona, who won in five sets at home around a month ago, but every set was competitive. The Bears got off to a strong start against the Wildcats, winning the first set, 25-19, to take an early lead. The Wildcats, however, quickly stormed back and eked out a tight victory in the second set, 25-23.
Cal’s inability to finish long rallies doomed it against Arizona. After giving up the second set, the Bears conceded an even closer third. Down 19-24, the Bears rallied six straight points, putting them within one of clinching the set, but they were unable to complete the comeback. Cal wound up on the losing end of the set, 27-25. The Wildcats won the final set, 25-19, to earn the 3-1 match victory.
The Bears have been forced to adapt to the loss of senior setter Alyssa Jensen, the team’s primary facilitator on offense, after she injured her foot against Colorado two weeks ago. Sophomore Mackenzie Albrecht has assumed the role of starting setter in her place, and while she’s improved dramatically in each successive start, she hasn’t been able to match Jensen’s impact yet.
“That’s (Alyssa), that’s an established three-year starting setter,” Feller said. “The setter is, of course, like the quarterback, so it’s a very critical position. Particularly with an inexperienced team in certain positions, to have an experienced player in that position is pretty key.”
Cal was led on offense by junior hitter Christine Alftin, who tallied 19 kills, as well as sophomore Belen Castillo and freshman Maddie Haynes, both of whom had 10 kills each. Castillo also contributed seven blocks to help anchor the team’s defense.
On Saturday, the Bears matched up with Arizona State and lost in three hard-fought sets. Though the Bears failed to win any sets, the match was competitive throughout. Cal lost each of the first two sets 25-22, and the final set 25-21. The performances from the underclassmen on the team were also reassuring. Freshman hitter Bailee Huizenga was the only player to record double-digit kills for Cal with 11, and Castillo chipped in an efficient nine-kill performance.
“We’ve had a couple freshmen in and out of the lineup throughout the year, and as we get down to the end of the season, Bailee Huizenga has continued to be extremely consistent,” Feller said. “She started off extremely hot early in the preseason, flattened out a little bit, but has gone back up and gotten a little better and better as the end of the season has approached.”
The silver lining to all of the Bears’ recent struggles has been the promising, though unreliable, play from the freshmen on their roster. Overcoming the loss of seniors such as Jensen and libero Maddy Kerr won’t be easy, but the Bears’ youthful offense is reason for hope.