Toughest tournament yet for an ambitious Cal beach volleyball team

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As students count the weeks until finals, the No. 12 Cal beach volleyball team has only a few more matches until the end of its season. The Bears have been steadily fighting toward their ultimate goal of earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament, and it is the coming weeks that will determine whether or not they reach that achievement.

This weekend, No. 19 Stanford will host the Pac-12 North Tournament, with No. 1 UCLA, No. 2 USC and Washington also in attendance. These two days of play will be some of the toughest the Bears have seen all season.

On Saturday morning, Cal is set to face the Trojans in the first meeting of the two teams so far this season. USC totes a record of 16-4 going into the match, not too different from Cal’s 14-3. Two of those losses came against UCLA, with the Trojans falling to the Bruins 2-3 at the start of the season and 1-4 last Wednesday. Last weekend, they earned another close 2-3 loss against No. 5 Pepperdine.

USC’s most surprising loss came at the hands of No. 11 South Carolina at the beginning of March — such an upset proves that the second best team in the nation is not immune to the advances of a lower-ranked team and should serve as an example for the Bears.

As the first match of the tournament, if Cal can maintain the victorious momentum from all of its spring break success, it might have a chance at offing a potentially unprepared USC team.

The Bear’s second match of the day, however, will be even tougher — UCLA is still undefeated with 23 wins so far. The Bruins’ initial defeat of USC was the only match they played that even came close to a loss.

Cal has come face to face with the UCLA team once this season in a dual that ended in a solid 5-0 defeat of the Bears. The Bruins should start their day of play with an easy sweep of Washington before facing a Cal team most likely worn down by its match with USC.

The Bruins haven’t shown a single sign of weakness in the 2019 season, and it seems unlikely that they would start this weekend. The Bears’ best chance at an upset is definitely against USC, and their main motivation is an NCAA bid, but whether that will be enough is still up in the air.

The second day of play for the Bears, which starts off with a matchup against Washington, should be a much easier ordeal as long as they don’t let the stress of Saturday carry over. This face across the net will be a familiar one, as the Bears and the Huskies already met once this season in a matchup that resulted in a 4-1 blue and gold victory.

With a 6-6 record, Washington has failed to defeat a ranked opponent this season. Its two most recent losses both came against No. 14 Arizona. The Bears are a much more experienced team and have shown improvement throughout the season that should make this match an easy addition to the win column.

No. 19 Stanford has long been seen as one of Cal’s biggest rivals, but in the world of beach volleyball, this season has placed the blue and gold well above cardinal red. Stanford is 8-10 this season, making it the only ranked team with a losing record. The two teams have met once already in 2019 when the Bears took a close 3-2 win on the Cardinal’s home turf.

Despite that somewhat close call, if the two teams perform consistently with how they have been recently, this matchup should earn another point for Cal in the rivalry.

This weekend will be not only the hardest but arguably one of the most important for the Bears — their performance has the potential to affect their chances at a bid and will also show how they perform under extreme pressure. The race to the end of the season has begun.

Alison White covers beach volleyball. Contact her at [email protected].