The lowest temperature recorded in Pullman, Washington, on Friday was 39 degrees, but the low for Cal volleyball was taking its sixth 3-0 loss in a span of seven matches. On Thursday, the Bears fell to No. 8 Washington before taking a loss at Washington State the next day.
Cal, lacking the presence of captains Mackenzie Albrecht and Christine Alftin due to stingy injuries, struggled to find a lineup strong and consistent enough to battle the best blocking teams in the Pac-12. With sophomore libero Emma Smith suffering back pain as well, Cal head coach Matt McShane had junior Amanda Kirtley move over into that slot, taking the role of the team’s defensive leader.
“I don’t think it’s very different playing libero vs. (defensive specialist),” Kirtley said. “You really just have to do your job. You just extend the amount of time you play in that position.”
While Kirtley led the team with 14 digs in the match against Washington (21-6, 11-5) it was not enough. The Bears recorded a .133 kill percentage while the Huskies surpassed that figure by nearly one and a half times, hitting .333.
Though Washington had significantly more kills for their number of attempts than Cal did, the individual sets remained close in score. The Bears, even in the third set, had not showed defeat.
Toward the end of that final set, Cal was leading 20-17. After a timeout called by the Huskies, Washington was able to match the Bears once again, bringing the score to 22-22. The Huskies continued to push ahead, letting the Bears score one more point while scoring three of their own to finish the match with a tight 25-23 game.
Kirtley, who had played in just her second full match as libero, mentioned how her teammates’ injuries left others with big shoes to fill in addition to herself. Though it certainly wasn’t the team’s strongest performance, the Bears performed relatively well in regard to their injuries.
“The team overall did a really good job of just stepping up to the plate,” Kirtley said. “A lot of girls really upped their game to take over the place of (Alftin) and (Albrecht).”
That particularly proved true in Friday’s match at Washington State. The Bears surpassed their previously stated goal of hitting above a .220 in each match as Cal hit .267.
“We did a great job hitting,” McShane said. “What happened was we didn’t pass very well and we didn’t play defense very well so that really made it hard for us. We hit remarkably well for some of the things that we did. We could have hit a lot better.”
Indeed, the Bears had a tough time defending against Cougar powerhouses such as juniors Taylor Mims and Ella Lajos and senior Casey Schoenlein who together recorded 66 attack attempts and only five errors throughout the entire match.
“We have to figure out how to play with some of the most important people on the bench,” McShane said. “And it’s rough. Not having (Alftin) and (Albrecht) on the court really hurts us. We’re doing our best without them but those two really provide not only leadership but also a lot of skill.”
With outside hitter Alftin on the bench, redshirt junior Ashten Smith-Gooden is trying to fill the void the best she can. Against Washington State, Smith-Gooden recorded seven kills and one error, hitting a .462 – one of her highest kill percentages of the season.
“It’s remarkable the team is still very optimistic even though we’ve been losing,” McShane said. “They know how close we are to winning. … They want to know what they can do to make a couple more good plays.”
With their last road trip out of the way, the Bears will play the remainder of their season matches back in California, where the highs are a little higher and lows a little less extreme.
Surina Khurana covers volleyball. Contact her at [email protected]