Cal volleyball splits matches, braces for No. 2 Stanford

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Win or lose, resilience is Cal volleyball’s middle name. After coming back from a 2-0 deficit to topple Pacific on Thursday, the Bears suffered a difficult 3-0 loss to Saint Mary’s on Saturday and still remain ready to fight.

Struggling to work as a cohesive unit, Cal competed at Pacific’s level throughout its first two sets. The Bears’ iffy passing prompted Cal to play out of system, as passes far off the net forced inconsistent sets, and in turn, a dismal offense.

“We really started to struggle passing,” said junior captain Bailee Huizenga. “Whether it was front-row players that were going back or DS players in the back row, I think we really struggled to adjust to their serves.”

After dropping the first two sets 26-24, 25-22, the Bears entered the locker room with some level of disappointment hanging on their faces, but remained motivated to turn things around.

“They were a great serving team and got us out of system a lot, but once we dialed in and figured out their serve and everything, I think we were able to get in system a lot better and a lot faster,” Huizenga said.

Altering the lineup and the dynamic on the court, head coach Jennifer Dorr put sophomore Lauren Forte in at middle blocker, and Forte’s force was instantly felt. Shutting the Tigers’ hitters down nearly every chance she could, Forte’s timing was impeccable and necessary in every sense — the Bears needed a spark to propel them through the third set.

With better passing coming out of the back row, the setters — freshman Jade Blevins and sophomore Isabel Potter — were able to run a more dynamic offense, utilizing Forte and sophomore Preslie Anderson in the middle, as opposed to exclusively sending the ball predictably to the pins.

Despite trailing 12-11 in the third set, the Bears were playing with promising intensity, accentuated by the next point.

Pacific sophomore Kaitlyn Lines, at the left pin, went up at full force — only to be matched by Huizenga with a solo block.

“Getting a solo block has to be one of the greatest feelings, just because it’s hard enough to be able to line up when you have a middle with you, but to be able to get one by yourself is a total momentum changer,” Huizenga said. “It just gives you that confidence that you’re doing your job and you’re executing it well.”

With Huizenga playing especially well at the pin and Forte recording a .417 hitting percentage and six blocks from the middle, the defense and offense alike saw major improvements.

Maintaining the energy from the 26-24 set victory, Cal kicked off the fourth set on a 10-1 run. While Pacific rallied in the middle of the set, the Bears managed to pull of a 25-20 win before claiming the fifth set 15-11.

Although Cal was able to rebound against Pacific, the Bears knew they would have to start out strong on Saturday against Saint Mary’s — the Gaels wouldn’t let them climb their way back out quite as easy.

As it turns out, Saint Mary’s didn’t let Cal climb back out at all. After the Gaels welcomed the Bears by dominating the first set 25-16, Dorr made some major adjustments to Cal’s lineup.

Replacing junior Emma Smith at libero with sophomore outside hitter Mima Mirkovic, the Bears were left with a large offensive void to fill. Up until that point, Mirkovic had played every match at the pin, serving as one of Cal’s most dominant hitters.

Filling Mirkovic’s spot, junior Maddie Haynes recorded five kills, but matched them with five errors. Although Forte, Anderson and redshirt junior Savannah Rennie were all on their game, Cal couldn’t keep up with the Saint Mary’s offense, dropping the latter two sets 25-23, 25-20.

Cal’s third loss of the season marked the Bears’ final match before entering conference play. And the Bears aren’t wading slowly into it either: Jumping off the high dive into the deep end, Cal will host No. 2 Stanford on Wednesday.

The Cardinal (8-1) are on a six-match win streak and Stanford’s sole loss was to BYU — currently the top-ranked program in the nation.

The Bears have some towering opponents looming, and their first one will likely be the largest. At the very least, Stanford will give the Bears a taste of what they can expect down the road.

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