Being the underdog doesn’t always mean you have nothing to lose, and as we get deeper and deeper into the beach volleyball season, the stakes only get higher.
Going into last weekend’s Heineken Hawaii Invitational, No. 11 Cal beach volleyball had a lot riding on its matchup against No. 6 Hawaii: the potential to increase its national ranking to heights the team has never seen before and an improvement of the team’s odds of getting into the NCAA Tournament at the end of the season — two of its ultimate goals.
The Bears were fittingly greeted on Hawaii sands by the Rainbow Wahine themselves in the early afternoon Saturday. In the first three matches, Cal’s No. 1 and No. 5 pairs both won their matches in two decisive sets each.
Its No. 2 pair of sophomore Caroline Schafer and junior Iya Lindahl, however, was soundly defeated by its Hawaii counterparts, senior Ari Homayun and junior Morgan Martin. This left two matches with the Bears needing only one to put themselves one step closer to some of their biggest season goals.
Both the No. 3 and No. 4 matches went to a third set, and both of those sets went into extra points, but ultimately, the Bears fell short. The Rainbow Wahine took both 18-16 in the third.
For Hawaii, this is still a victory in its record books, but perhaps on rockier ground than they would have liked. Its brush with a loss was a close one and could either leave them shaken or determined for the team’s next matchup with Cal — especially since that next meeting would not be in several weeks, but the very next day.
The rest of Saturday saw both the Bears and the Rainbow Wahine go on to defeat Boise State and Nebraska, both unranked teams. Hawaii did so with two confident 5-0 blowouts, refusing to drop a single set.
The Bears showed just a bit of their mental and physical fatigue in their next matchups; they beat Nebraska 5-0 but had to fight through three third sets to do so. Against Boise State, they went 4-1, losing the No. 2 matchup but winning all of the rest in two relatively easy sets.
With play for the day complete, Sunday’s seedings were set. The Rainbow Wahine would face off with Nebraska again early Sunday morning, while the Bears would meet Boise State in the early afternoon. Assuming both teams found victory, they would meet once again later in the afternoon for an immediate rematch.
The Bears easily dispatched the Broncos, 5-0, with no sets lost. Hawaii once again took care of Nebraska, 5-0, with only one third set. The rematch was on.
This time, Hawaii took the early lead, winning the No. 2 and No. 3 matches but losing No. 5 to Cal’s pair of senior Mia Merino and junior Abby Waldburger, 21-9 and 21-18. This win put the duo at 5-0 for the weekend, proving their dominance as a pair.
Cal took the next matchup when its No. 1 pair of freshman Jordan Polo and sophomore Mima Mirkovic won its match in a third set, 15-11. Once again, it was down to just one match between the No. 4 pairs to determine the victor.
Sophomore Alexia Inman and junior Madison Dueck took on Hawaii’s duo of senior Hi’ilawe Huddleston and freshman Kylin Loker. They pushed the match to three and forced the third into extra points but, ultimately, weren’t able to overthrow the dominant Rainbow Wahine, losing with a heartbreaking score of 17-15.
This loss was a tough one for the team and a missed chance to improve on some of its long-term goals. This match, however, marked the start of a tough run in the Bears’ season during which they will face several ranked opponents.
Cal has already come so close to defeating some of its biggest rivals, and it is up to the team and just a few points to determine if it will continue to play the role of the underdog or rise up and become a team to fear for some of the best talent in the country.
Alison White covers beach volleyball. Contact her at [email protected]