Cal volleyball takes 3-1 win over Utah to continue conference success

Zahira Chaudhry/Staff

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Cal volleyball’s win Friday night over Utah marked the first time the Bears have picked up five conference wins in a season since 2013. With season and career highs across the court, the Bears’ 3-1 victory over the Utes made for a momentous game.

Friday’s match was all about rhythm, and Cal entered the first set clearly in the groove, with sophomore setter Isabel Potter running the Bears’ 5-1 offense and redshirt sophomore libero Kat Knop leading the defense.

Although Cal dropped the first few points of the set, the Bears quickly rebounded and built up a 14-7 lead under Knop and sophomore Mima Mirkovic’s serving. While the Bears wouldn’t maintain the seven-point differential, they succeeded in forcing a meager .128 Utah hitting percentage and took the first set 25-21.

Utah, which upset then-No. 14 Oregon just a few weeks ago, couldn’t manage to get into a rhythm for the duration of the first set. But as the second set opened, it was clear the team’s players had begun to jive.

Utah’s all-around star player, sophomore Dani Drews, began finding openings, placing the ball with deliberate force. She would go on to lead her team with 21 kills by the end of the match.

Catching the Bears off guard and forcing them to play out of system, Utah built up a nice lead as Cal struggled to play a consistent game.

“I think it is more communication,” said junior Maddie Haynes, who helped lead Cal offensively with her season high of 15 kills. “But whenever that happens, we say, ‘That’s over. It’s 0-0. Come back, fight hard. We know we’re Cal volleyball.’ ”

Tied with Utah with a set apiece, Cal started the third set neck and neck with their opponents, but the Utes built a small yet significant lead. It felt like the set was slipping away from the Bears as they made unforced errors, allowing Utah to expand its 13-9 edge to 17-12.

But things finally started to get back into tune for Cal — Mirkovic notched a kill and then an ace before Haynes drove home another kill. The Bears began closing the gap, forcing Utah to call a timeout at 15-17.

Pushing off a 22-22 standstill, junior Bailee Huizenga notched another kill, and redshirt freshman Lauren Forte knocked down an overpass so that the Bears held set point 24-22, though they wouldn’t take the set just yet.

With Utah serving down 23-24, the rally just wouldn’t end. Unable to run anything else, Potter kept pushing balls outside to Mirkovic, who Utah continued to block. But with everyone covering Mirkovic, the Bears kept the ball in play.

After hitting in the block three times, Mirkovic took a swing higher — the ball missed the block, but landed out of bounds. Or so it seemed.

Challenging the call, Cal head coach Jennifer Dorr argued a touch on the Utah block. To the Utes’ dismay, the call was reversed, allowing Cal to take the third set in dramatic fashion.

Bringing the same beat and flow into the fourth set, the Bears quickly moved ahead, eager to make it the last set of the night. Cal built up a nice buffer, leading 20-12. While the Utes notched five more points, the Bears did as well, with Huizenga’s crosscourt kill sealing the deal to give Cal the 3-1 win.

“Everyone was clicking,” Haynes said. “We were like, ‘We’re not taking this team to five. We already took this team to five once, and we’re ending this now.’ We had the motivation and determination to be like, ‘This is over. This is our gym. We are Cal volleyball, and we are going to show you we aren’t the team we were two years ago — we’re the team we are now.’ ”

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