Cal volleyball set to face No. 20 UCLA, No. 15 USC

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In Southern California, there are fewer trees, more cars and less water. But Haas Pavilion is what Cal volleyball will miss most as the Bears spend their weekend down south, playing at No. 20 UCLA on Friday and No. 15 USC on Sunday.

Cal (11-10) has pulled off a win in each of the Bears’ past three pairs of matches. The last weekend that the Bears walked away 0-2 was the weekend they hosted the Bruins and Trojans. Cal fell to UCLA, 3-2, after dropping a 2-0 set lead. The Bears also remained competitive against the Trojans, surrendering the match 3-1, coming just shy of pushing a fifth set.

This weekend, smart all-around playing will be essential; the Bears must work as a cohesive unit in order to come away with a win. For Cal, it all starts with the first pass.

“If we win the serve and pass, that’s great, and then everything else kind of flows with it,” said sophomore Isabel Potter, the team’s starting setter. “That’s a great goal we need to keep getting better at and keep in our hands.”

Since playing at Cal, UCLA was swept twice — once by Oregon and once by Washington State. While the Bears beat the Cougars in a 3-1 battle, they, too, quickly fell to Oregon’s powerhouse squad.

Leading the Bruins the past few weeks, sophomore Mac May, junior Madeleine Gates and senior Zana Muno have all made progress on the court.

Muno, the Bruins’ strongest defensive player, recently worked her way up to a fifth-place ranking on UCLA’s all-time career digs list, with 1,360.

Offensively, Gates continues to prove essential to the Bruins’ lineup. Hitting a .332, Gates has become one of UCLA’s most efficient hitters, while also leading the team in blocks.

The Bears’ middle blockers can be found at the top of the Pac-12 rankings, making Cal’s offense appear stronger on paper. Sophomore Preslie Anderson leads the conference with a .390 hitting percentage, and redshirt freshman Lauren Forte is second in the conference with her 1.57 blocks per set.

More importantly, Potter and freshman Jade Blevins, a fellow setter, have created versatility within the offense. Although UCLA’s May is a powerhouse hitter, she has recorded nearly a third of the team’s kills, making the Bruins’ plays somewhat predictable. If the Bears can shut down May, or even pick up her swings consistently, they will be in good shape to take the match.

Leading the Bears in kills, Cal sophomore Mima Mirkovic has proven herself a powerful outside hitter and is closely followed by junior Bailee Huizenga. While Mirkovic plays at the left pin, Huizenga’s home base is on the right. The balance between the two, along with the strong middle blocker presence, has been instrumental to the Bears’ conference wins so far.

While UCLA junior Kylie Miller has been taking most of the setting duties for the team since conference play began, recording 377 assists, the Bruins functioned considerably better against the Bears once head coach Michael Sealy worked freshman setter Devon Chang into the lineup. It will be interesting to see who comes out against the Bears, and what changes Sealy will make.

Regardless of Friday night’s match, Cal will have another opportunity to play, win and grow as the team takes on USC. Led by outside hitter Khalia Lanier, USC (15-6, 7-3) is an even stronger team than UCLA.

Although there will be no Cal Band and fewer fans supporting the Bears than at Haas Pavilion, Cal volleyball is still capable of taking a match or two this weekend. But to do so, the team will have to play its absolute best of the season, converting all of its potential success into tangible action.

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