Cal beach volleyball can’t take the heat in the Desert

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With high hopes for the end of the regular season, Cal beach volleyball (13-10) entered this weekend looking to continue a string of strong play. The Bears, however, fell flat in the heat of the desert and could not find victory in any of their three matches this weekend in Arizona — the trend of Cal’s roller coaster season continues to define the team’s season.

Since their undefeated start to the season, the Bears have been unable to sustain back-to-back weekends of solid play. Yes, they had strong competition this weekend, but all were extremely beatable opponents.

The opening loss against New Mexico really set the tone for the rest of the weekend. Any loss against a nonconference opponent particularly stings for the Bears. This matchup was certainly their best chance for a win this weekend. But Cal’s top-two pairs were unable to pull through for the team, and both unimpressively fell in straight sets.

Just hours later, their loss to Arizona State was not much better, considering the Sun Devils had a losing record going into the match. To start the dual, No. 5 pair of junior captain Teya Neff and freshman Bridget Gustafson dropped a tightly contested match, ending 17-15 in the third set. Although the Bears bounced back in the next two to take the 2-1 lead, once again the top pairs could not convert, allowing the Sun Devils to come back and even their season record.

Junior captain Bryce Bark and freshman Camille Stepanof did their part Friday but could not do anything about the rest of their teammates’ lackluster play. The back half of the lineup which has been so steady for the Bears all season fought hard but never got the support from the No. 1 and No. 2 pairs.

Sophomore Mia Merino, who has been a mainstay at the No. 1 pair this season, sat out the final match of the weekend against Arizona with an injury. Perhaps this explains Friday’s struggles with partner junior Jessica Gaffney. Nonetheless, because of Merino’s injury, the entire lineup was shuffled for the competition against the Wildcats.

Two of the Bears’ most solid pairs, freshmen Iya Lindahl and Nicole Anderson and sophomores Grace Campbell and Olivia Rodberg, were forced to split up. The results of the impromptu change were unsurprising — Cal was swept 5-0 by No. 8 Arizona and did not claim a single set on the day.

With the regular season officially in the books, Cal cannot be pleased with their sporadic performance in the second half. The Bears left their trip to the desert with more question marks than when they arrived. With Merino’s return to match play in question now that an injury has been confirmed, Cal seems to be in no position to make make a run this weekend at the Pac-12 championships.

With that tournament now in plain sight, the Bears have put themselves in a much harder position for success. The desert did not serve them well last weekend, and with a return trip approaching, Cal has to figure out its game plan to salvage the season.

Charlie Griffen covers beach volleyball. Contact him at [email protected].