Cal volleyball set to host No. 18 UCLA, No. 13 USC

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Nine of the Pac-12’s volleyball programs are nationally ranked. Cal volleyball, one of the lone three lacking a ranking, is making its way through conference play slowly, still gaining its footing and still looking to pick up a win. This weekend, Cal will host two of the country’s top teams with No. 18 UCLA set to play Friday before Cal welcomes No. 13 USC on Sunday.

The Bruins (6-4, 1-2) have only dropped matches against No. 15 Cal Poly, No. 2 Stanford and USC. While UCLA couldn’t manage to topple its Californian foes, the team has already pushed past a number of ranked opponents, including No. 21 Baylor and No. 25 Utah.

UCLA’s offense, run primarily by sophomore outside hitter Mac May and freshman setter Devon Chang, has proven to be strong the past few weeks. Just 27 sets into her collegiate career, Chang — last year’s California Gatorade State Player of the Year — is already leading her team with 253 assists.

May — who was named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week earlier this month — recorded 21 kills against Baylor. At 6’3”, May has a two-inch advantage over Cal junior opposite Bailee Huizenga by default; the Bears’ block connection and timing will be crucial in determining how the match plays out.

The Bruins return several veteran players as well. UCLA’s middle blockers, senior Kyra Rogers and junior Madeleine Gates, are known for their consistency, recording .256 and .344 hitting percentages, respectively. Defensively, senior Zana Muno is making history for the Bruins. Her 1,222 career digs place her ninth in UCLA’s rankings.

The Bears, who have dropped both of their conference matches, know they will have to be the best version of themselves this weekend.

“We have been working on our offensive connections and just again our consistency — being able to play consistently well and do our jobs throughout an entire long rally,” said head coach Jennifer Dorr. “We had moments of brilliance versus ASU, and we also had plays that we took off and that just can’t happen, especially as we face two ranked opponents this weekend.”

A win will be tough for Cal, but the Bears showed they can hang with the big dogs after dropping their second set to the Cardinal last week by just two points. UCLA, in contrast, never scored more than 19 points against Stanford.

After a day of rest, Cal will host USC for its last home match in a four-game stretch. Ending its season with a loss at the NCAA Regional Championships last year, USC is yet again proving to be a strong, dominant force this year. The Trojans, however, did graduate several starters, and their younger players still have big shoes to fill.

As the Bears can expect a fast offense from the Trojans, they will need not only strong defense from junior Emma Smith and redshirt sophomore Kat Knop, but also a heightened level of intelligence and thought. Last week against Stanford, Cal proved it could rise to the challenge as the Bears scored points by tooling and putting the ball deep.

“I think it comes from rising from the challenge of playing against bigger physical players. We may not match up sizewise exactly with the two teams we play against this weekend,” Dorr said. “We have to be smarter with our shots; we have to be more precise.”

Surina Khurana covers volleyball. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @surina_k.