Cal volleyball embarks on road trip still in search of a conference win

Ketki Samel/Staff

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Cal volleyball is set to embark on its first Pac-12 road trip of the season this weekend, when the Bears will face Colorado on Friday and No. 24 Utah on Saturday.

The Buffs welcome the Bears to their home court after suffering three consecutive losses to ranked opponents USC, Washington and Washington State. Led by senior Alexa Smith, Colorado exhibits both a strong offense and defense.
Smith has recorded a team high of 202 kills and 150 digs this season. Colorado, which has a robust 6-2 record playing at home, is coming off a bitter loss at Washington State. The Cougars beat the Buffs 3-1, taking the second set 32-30 and the fourth 26-24.

The Buffs will be especially eager to ensure another win doesn’t slip out from under them. But that’s not to say that the Bears cannot come away with their first conference victory. While Cal has dropped all four of its Pac-12 matches thus far, the Bears pushed both Arizona State and No. 17 UCLA to a fifth final set, missing out on a pair of big victories by inches.

It’s clear that Cal’s offense is becoming stronger by the day, as freshman setter Jade Blevins and redshirt freshman Lauren Forte gain more experience on the court. With four sophomores competing as well, the Bears have been improving as a cohesive group with each match.

Last weekend, the Bears’ defense — composed of redshirt sophomore Kat Knop, junior Emma Smith and sophomore Mima Mirkovic — was consistent enough to allow its setters to vary Cal’s offense. Sending balls back to junior Bailee Huizenga and up the middle to sophomore Preslie Anderson is ultimately what opened up opportunities to stay tight with the Bruins.

Playing scrappy defense and smart offense, Cal has been taking sets against some of the best competition. To come away with a win, though, the Bears will need to reduce their number of unforced errors while continuing to bolster their out-of-system plays.

“All of our team has gotten better at being more well-rounded,” Anderson said. “When I do something like make a dig or get an assist, it’s kind of one of those things where I’m out of my element, but knowing I have the confidence to get an assist or dig brings confidence to other parts of my game.”

Proving to be one of the Bears’ most valuable offensive assets, Anderson is the Pac-12’s most efficient hitter and ranks eighth in the NCAA with her .417 hitting percentage.

The Utes and Bears share a familiar nonconference opponent — Saint Mary’s. Both teams fell to the Gaels earlier this season as Saint Mary’s swept Cal and managed an evenly matched 3-2 win over Utah.

The Utes have faced a tough schedule thus far but have had opportunities to compete with the nation’s very best. A couple of weeks ago, Utah played in-state rival No. 1 BYU on the road but was unable to escape the Cougars’ unwavering dominance in BYU’s 25-20, 25-14, 25-17 sweep.

Despite their four losses against conference foes, the Bears’ recent scrappy performances seemingly signal that Cal is due for a win this weekend, if not in the near future.

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