Cal volleyball begins season with 3-0 sweep

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Cal volleyball’s redshirt senior Savannah Rennie is no longer the player recovering from a liver transplant or undergoing treatment for post-transplant non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Savannah Rennie is back. And she made it known this weekend.

Rennie earned the tournament’s Most Valuable Player honors and was also named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week after leading her team to a season-opening 3-0 sweep at the Ram Volleyball Classic.

“I am almost speechless when it comes to how Savannah played in her first weekend with me and kind of her first healthy season to start again,” said Cal head coach Sam Crosson. “For her to be able to go out and perform as well as she did, and be as vocal on the court and be as effective from the service line — she was a rock this weekend.”

Cal began the tournament with a Friday matchup against Oklahoma. Running a 5-1 rotation in their first set of the season, the Bears notched a .476 hitting percentage, with notable offensive efforts from Rennie and fellow senior Maddie Haynes.

After falling to the Bears in a 25-12 first set blowout, the Sooners picked things up, visibly still fighting for the match. Although Oklahoma was able to turn an 8-point deficit into just a 2-point gap, the Sooners’ repetitive attack errors and inability to defend Cal’s big hitters left them with a 25-20 loss.

Oklahoma continued to work out its kinks and increased the level of competition on the court, turning the game into a nail-biter. The Bears held game point at 24-22 before Cal made a blocking error and two attack errors, putting Oklahoma up at 25-24. A few more unforced errors allowed the Bears to gain the upper hand.

With junior setter Isabel Potter serving the final three points, Cal was able to pull away 28-26 and solidify its first win of the season.

“We are starting to be more of an efficient serving team,” Crosson said. “Serving for us is going to be a big asset when we can become very consistent and good at it.”

While Friday’s third set was certainly a thriller, it was only a taste of what was in store for the Bears on Saturday. Cal’s next matches, against Colorado State and Chicago State were pushed to four sets.

In their second match of the tournament, 1,836 people watched the Bears face host Colorado State in Moby Arena. Both senior Bailee Huizenga and junior Mima Mirkovic ended up recording double-doubles as setters Potter and sophomore Jade Blevins led the team to a four-set win.

Huizenga and Mirkovic would both go on to earn All-Tournament recognition, as would Rennie.

Coming off a high-intensity match to one a bit less intense, Cal dropped its first set against Chicago State 25-22, despite outperforming its opponents in hitting in all four sets.

“One of our sayings as a group is ‘Next ball mentality,’” Crosson said. “I was very pleased with how our team tried to manage their different stressors. We were not a very rollercoaster emotional team this weekend. Really pleased with how steady we were.”

After winning the next two sets, Cal polished things off for good, hitting a jaw-dropping .591 in the fourth and final set with only one error out of the Bears’ 22 attack attempts. Rennie continued to be a powerful offensive force along with Huizenga, who led Cal with 13 kills. Defensively, Rennie put up five blocks and senior libero Emma Smith notched 16 digs.

The Bears’ weekend sweep was one for the books. Cal fans, knock on wood if you haven’t already. This 2019 season may just be the beginning of a new era for Cal volleyball.

The Bears will be back on the road in just a few days, as Cal travels down south to compete at the UC Irvine Invitational. There, Cal will face North Carolina and UNLV before squaring off against host UC Irvine.

The competition the Bears will face over the weekend will likely be tougher than what Cal experienced in its first round of play, but the Bears will need all the tests they can get before conference play begins.

UC Irvine should be Cal’s toughest opponent this weekend. The Anteaters are coming off a 16-13 season, during which they finished third in the Big West, only behind Cal Poly and Hawaii.

UC Irvine returns with powerhouse hitters junior Loryn Carter and sophomore Abby Marjama. With seven additions to their roster, the Anteaters certainly won’t have the same level of experience that they did last year, but their returning offensive forces can’t be underestimated.

Following the 2018 season, Marjama was named Big West Freshman of the Year as she finished her first collegiate season averaging 2.7 kills per set and leading her team in aces. Carter was a formidable force at the net as well, leading the Anteaters in kill average.

Yet the young new team didn’t seem quite ready for the season in their 2019 debut. In the first weekend of play, UC Irvine got off to a rough 0-3 start, falling to Oregon State, No. 11 Oregon and Boston College.

Whether or not the Anteaters can work their issues out this week, they will be put to the test in their quickly approaching tournament, one the Bears are eager to compete in.

“What we’re doing is working,” Crosson said. “We can get back into the grind of Haas and keep wanting to become better.”

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