Cal volleyball drops 2 matches to No. 17 USC, No. 16 UCLA

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After Cal football’s major upset against a top-10 opponent, fans may have thought predictions have no meaning. Cal volleyball’s losses at No. 17 USC and No. 16 UCLA, though,  showed that rankings still carry validity.

On Friday’s match against USC (14-4, 6-1), Cal (11-8, 2-6) fell to the Trojans in one of its closer losses of the season, 3-1. The Bears’ first set loss came unsurprisingly as they hit .037, one of their worst hitting percentages of the season. USC hitters, too, had a tough time executing as they hit .139, making a 25-21 set appear more competitive than it actually was.

“We made a change of setters (in the first set) and it turned out to not work out very well for us so we went back to the two that were setting for us,” said Cal head coach Matt McShane.

Reverting back to the original lineup, with both senior Mackenzie Albrecht and freshman Isabel Potter setting, definitely helped the Bears regain their focus. In a close battle, the two teams pushed each other beyond a 25-point game, making the final score 29-27 — Cal’s first set win in two weeks.

While the third set proved challenging for Cal, giving USC a less competitive match (25-15), the Bears battled to the tail end of their fourth set loss (25-23), much like the second. With senior Antzela Dempi showcasing her notable jump serve in full force, the Bears came back from a 7-point deficit to trail the Trojans by just a point.

“Consistency and competitiveness,” McShane said. “There are times — like the second game against USC and the fourth game against USC — where we play with a great deal of intelligence and discipline.”

Though the match at USC resulted in a loss for the Bears, their competitive nature made it appear as though Cal may have found its groove. At the least, the Bears should be on the track back to more consistent, competitive play against top-ranked Pac-12 teams.

Nevertheless, Saturday’s 3-0 loss at UCLA proved the Bears are still playing with their line up, trying to find a system that works most effectively. Notably, senior and captain Christine Alftin sported the team’s different-colored jersey as she took the role of libero, replacing sophomore Emma Smith. As Alftin has typically played as an outside hitter this season, her shift in position was unexpected.

The change in libero constitutes the team’s third player in that position so far this season. Senior Jessica Gaffney played the first 13 matches of the season as libero, before a younger player was introduced to the role of full-time defensive guru. Smith played the position the past five matches before Alftin tried out the spot.

“(Alftin has) been struggling a little bit in the front row, but she is absolutely our emotional leader on the court,” McShane said. “There were times when we were trying a different player for her in the front row and she would go in the back row, and we were missing her leadership when she’d be gone for three rotations.”

With stronger back-row skills than front-row skills, the six-foot-tall senior led the team with 15 digs in her debut match as libero. Whether or not her performance was strong enough to keep her in the position is still being weighed as her coaches examine film from the weekend.

“We need her vocal leadership on the court, so we’re going to have her play,” McShane said. “We’re just not sure which position we are going to have her play yet.”

Surina Khurana covers volleyball. Contact her at [email protected]