This weekend marked the culmination not of a single season’s work, but of years of practice, sweat and dedication. Taking third at the Pac-12 Championship, Cal beach volleyball (24-8) finally established its name among the best, while checking off goals that were left unaccomplished for the past four seasons.
Cal’s first dual match of the Pac-12 Championship was against Washington, a team the Bears held an even record against (1-1). Though the Bears previously beat the Huskies in a 5-0 sweep, their 4-1 win this time around was much closer.
“They have a lot of really talented indoor players who just keep getting better and better as the season goes on because they are getting more and more reps on the sand,” said senior captain Bryce Bark. “So Washington has always been a team that creeps up on you with how good they end up being by the end of the season.”
Well-prepared for the elevated level of competition, the Bears only dropped one match to the Huskies, advancing to the quarterfinals to face USC the following day.
“We were really taking the tournament one match at a time,” Bark said. “After we beat Washington, we were immediately like, ‘Okay, focus on the next most important thing and that’s beating USC.’ ”
Although the Bears upset the Trojans with a 3-2 win earlier this season, USC had more than its pride on the line last Friday.
The Trojans’ eagerness to not only assert their dominance over the Bears but also defend their Pac-12 and NCAA Championship title ultimately overcame the Bears’ quest for a win.
Nothing could express both teams’ hunger for a win better than how the match began on court four. Cal’s junior Mia Merino and freshman Caroline Schafer battled USC’s senior Jenna Belton and freshman Maja Kaiser relentlessly before finally taking the first set 32-30. Following the narrow win with a more decisive 21-15 second-set victory, the duo recorded what would be Cal’s sole win against USC.
While the fours battled back and forth, Cal’s No. 5 pair nearly earned a second point for the Bears but ultimately fell 16-14 in the third set. Although the rest of the team cheered on the top three courts, hoping for two wins, the Bears’ top two pairs fell in straight sets, clinching the match for the Trojans.
The loss didn’t knock Cal out of the tournament, but instead pushed it into the contender side of the bracket, allowing the team to still advance. Making the most of their free life, the Bears pushed past Arizona with a narrow 3-2 win to make it to the quarterfinals once again.
With both teams’ seasons on the line, the Bears met the Huskies for the second time in the span of three days. The taxing contest ended in another 3-2 win for Cal, but the fatigue was visible.
“In the Pac-12 Championship tournament you’re gonna see high level competition in every single match,” said head coach Meagan Owusu. “We were thrilled to live another day and just ready to get back to work.”
As the Bears entered the second match of the tournament against their Trojan foes, Cal’s struggle was evident as the No. 4 pair fell in straight sets and the No. 5 pair dropped its match shortly after. As the top three pairs took the sand, it was clear the Bears needed a miracle to overcome the 2-0 deficit and advance to the finals, but that magic never came.
Though the 0-5 loss to the Trojans served as the Bears’ final match of the season, Cal ended its 2018 season third in the Pac-12 and as unquestionably the best team in its program’s history — perhaps the biggest win of them all.
“Our first main goal was to have full squad investment, which the squad did a tremendous job of accomplishing,” Owusu said. “In terms of results goals, we wanted to be the best team in Northern California, which we did, and we wanted to get top three at Pac-12s, which we did.”
As the season comes to a close, the Bears who have been a part of the program since the early days are most proud.
“When we were freshmen, we’d set these goals that seemed really out of reach and for the most part they were really out of reach,” Bark said. “And this year, we set the same goals and it was crazy to see that we actually were able to accomplish all of them.”
Surina Khurana covers beach volleyball. Contact her at [email protected].