Cal volleyball takes sets against ranked UCLA, USC

Ketki Samel/Staff

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This weekend, Cal volleyball (8-7) caught the volleyball nation by surprise, taking two sets from No. 18 UCLA and winning set one against No. 13 USC. Despite adding two losses to their record, the Bears’ competitiveness all weekend highlights the team’s strength and upward trajectory.

On Friday night, Cal entered its match against the Bruins with nothing to lose, winning the opening set. Playing their ultimate best, Cal’s middle blockers — redshirt freshman Lauren Forte and sophomore Preslie Anderson — dominated, connecting exceptionally well with their setters — sophomore Isabel Potter and freshman Jade Blevins.

“We’ve been working a lot in practice on our setter-hitter connection,” Anderson said. “It’s such a good feeling to know we’re getting such a more balanced offense this year because I think last year that’s what our weakness was — having an unbalanced offense.”

In the first half of the second set, the Bears and Bruins were neck-and-neck, tied up at 13-13, but strong serving from Potter and sophomore Mima Mirkovic put the Bears up 23-15.

Although UCLA tried to change things up, subbing in freshman Devon Chang to set for junior Kylie Miller, it was clear that the Bears had their opposition right where they wanted it. Anderson recorded the Bears’ set-winning kill off of Potter and ended the second set with a .818 hitting percentage.

Despite Cal’s high, UCLA came out with renewed energy for the third set. With their backs against the walls, locked in a do-or-die situation, the Bruins were forced to step up their game.

Replacing junior Savvy Simo at libero, senior Zana Muno donned the white jersey while Simo moved to play as an outside hitter.

These changes proved to be critical for the Bruins, who went on several key runs accentuated by strong serving from senior Kyra Rogers.

“Winning the serve-and-pass game is really important for our team because we might not have the tallest block — we’re not seen as the most physical team but we really can be,” Anderson said. “But that all starts from the service line and getting a good pass and being in system.”

UCLA sophomore Mac May found her groove again after struggling in the first two sets, forcing the Bears to play out of system. Keeping the blockers taking the angle shot, Cal sacrificed several points to May’s line kills.

Keeping themselves in the match, UCLA finished the set 25-23 and took their energy with them into the fourth set. Both teams made smart out-of-system plays, with hunger for a win clearly visible.

With Cal leading 21-19 in the fourth set, another kill from May put the Bruins within just a point of the Bears. Running with the energy off of consecutive kills from May, UCLA was leading 23-21 when Cal took a timeout. Unable to score another point, Chang continued serving up until the end as the Bruins tied things up with their 25-21 win.

The fifth set was characterized by unforced errors on the Bears’ side of the net — errors they just couldn’t afford to make against a UCLA team finally playing like itself. Taking a small, yet significant lead early on, the Bruins carried their advantage throughout the set.

“Fifth sets are just crazy,” said Cal head coach Jennifer Dorr. “They’re a race to 15, and you need that fast start, and we didn’t get it. But I was so proud of the fight through the set, even when our backs were against the wall, to push it to 15-13.”

The match couldn’t have been any closer, with the Bears eventually falling 15-13 in the fifth set.

Fully understanding just what it is capable of, Cal welcomed USC to Haas Pavilion on Sunday. Perhaps the Trojans didn’t see the score from the Friday match as it seemed they, too, weren’t expecting such a force.

Off a kill from Forte, the Bears took the first set with a nail-biting 25-23 win. A major upset victory seemed possible, yet again. But after trading leads for the first half of the second and third sets, the Trojans pulled ahead both times to secure back-to-back wins.

Forced to win to stay in the game, the Bears held a five-point lead in the fourth set and nearly extended things as they reached set point twice. Eager to finish, though, the Trojans ended up toppling the Bears 28-26.

“The most outstanding part of our game was we were composed the whole time,” Anderson said. “Our team motto is tough and together, and I really think we did a good job of staying together for every point and present in every single point.”

The weekend proved monumental for the Bears. In putting two top, highly physical teams on their heels, the underdogs established their strength not only for this season but also into the future.

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