During its weekend in the rainy Northwest, Cal volleyball split a pair of highly contested matches, as the Bears fell to No. 20 Washington before toppling No. 18 Washington State for the second time this season. Cal’s win over Wazzu made for a historic victory, as the Bears had not won a Cal-Wazzu series since 2012.
On Friday night, Cal head coach Jennifer Dorr decided to make changes, though subtle, on the defensive end. Junior Emma Smith donned the libero jersey, while redshirt sophomore Kat Knop played as a defensive specialist.
The team appeared to groove with the new lineup, at one point leading the Huskies 20-16 in the first set. But big kills from Washington’s Claire Hoffman and a plethora of attacking errors on Cal’s end allowed the Huskies to take a 26-24 comeback win.
“When you’re playing a top-25 team, you can’t make those small errors,” Smith said.
Throughout the season, the Bears have struggled with second sets. Friday’s match against Washington proved no different. Despite their initial strong performance in the first set and only 2-point differential, the Bears were outscored by the Huskies 8-1 in the final stretch of the second set. Washington got the win at 25-17 and readied itself for what the Huskies hoped to be the final set of the match.
Despite being down by 2 points, Cal played like it was the first set, once again. The Bears matched the Huskies at 8 and 15 points before pulling ahead slightly. Despite a somewhat shaky offense, Cal pulled off a 25-23 win to push a fourth set.
Washington ultimately picked up the fourth set with a 25-21 win, extending the Huskies’ impressive win streak, but the Bears had displayed glimpses of consistency that showed they were ready for what was to come Sunday.
And two days later, Cal opened its match against Washington State with a similar lineup to that of Friday night’s game, with Smith at libero.
The Bears managed to topple the Cougars 3-1 when the teams played at Haas Pavilion last month. Wazzu star Taylor Mims, who was sidelined for the teams’ last matchup, recorded an impressive 17 kills in Sunday’s match. Yet Wazzu’s offense lacked the efficiency it needed against Cal, hitting an overall .180 to Cal’s .288 hitting percentage.
Sophomore Isabel Potter continued to run Cal’s 5-1 system, with sophomore Mima Mirkovic and junior Bailee Huizenga as her most efficient hitters.
Although the Bears’ middle blockers — redshirt freshman Lauren Forte and sophomore Preslie Anderson — have been a major strength for the team, they lacked their usual hitting consistency against their bigger opponents Sunday afternoon.
Regardless, smart hitting from the pins and a balanced defense allowed Cal to take the win over Washington State, dropping only the second set.
“I think we followed the scouting report really well, and there was really great communication,” Smith said.
The win also keeps Cal in contention for an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament. Since the Bears sit at No. 85 in the RPI rankings, their chances of making the tournament are still slim, but two big matches remain for Cal to prove itself.
On Wednesday, the Bears will play at No. 24 Arizona before they conclude conference play Saturday at No. 2 Stanford.
“We want to put ourselves in a position to get an at-large bid,” Smith said. “Our goals are to win both games, but if we can go 1-1, our program has a chance to make the NCAA tournament, which we haven’t done since 2013.”