Cal volleyball extends undefeated record at UCI Invitational

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Cal volleyball (6-0) is rewriting the old wives’ tale about bad things coming in threes, as the team took a trio of wins this weekend — each completed in three sets. Road wins over North Carolina, UNLV and UC Irvine leave the Bears with just four more matches of nonconference play left on the schedule.

The program hasn’t seen a 6-0 start to the season since 2013, the same year that Cal made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

“I’m really impressed and proud of this group this weekend, in terms of maintaining a few things we talked about,” said Cal head coach Sam Crosson. “One — the next ball mentality … to keep ourselves focused in the moment. Two — this group is starting to get some confidence and understand that they can control a lot of things with our execution, the speed of which we’re trying to play at and some of the things that we’ve been working on.”

The Bears kicked off their weekend of success against the Tar Heels, a program Cal hasn’t played since 2013. Yet the Bears were ready. With junior Mima Mirkovic at the service line, Cal quickly charged ahead of North Carolina 11-3.

The Bears only expanded their lead, taking the first set of the weekend 25-15. They’d replicate their success in the following set — and end up pushing the Tar Heels even further in the third, finishing the match with a 25-13 victory.

UNLV’s overall inconsistency prevented anything resembling a tight game in Cal’s second match. Cal was able to maintain its high energy level and propel into its Saturday matches behind strong play from its hitters.

While Cal’s first two sets against the Rebels started off close, the Bears, leading the match 2-0, opened the third set by quickly going ahead. With strong passing from senior Emma Smith and effective ball placement from junior setter Isabel Potter, Cal’s offense stayed successful and dynamic.

Redshirt sophomore Lauren Forte hit .417 on her 12 attempts and senior Maddie Haynes served four aces, while still remaining a strong force at the net. Haynes would end up totaling 27 kills over the weekend — proving herself to be a critical component of the Bears’ lineup.

Cal took the court one last time at the Bren Events Center for its match against host UC Irvine. Although the battle was late Saturday evening, the Bears showed no signs of fatigue.

The Anteaters started off tight with the Bears, with substantial efforts from Irvine’s Makayla Wolfe and setter Kelly Negron — who would go on to tally 21 assists. Yet Cal would end up scoring 10 of the last 14 points and take the lead in the match with a 25-17 triumph.

The Bears continued storming past the Anteaters, winning the second set 25-12 and closing out the third set (25-15) with Potter serving six consecutive balls and Cal recording seven unanswered points.

Cal’s performance at the UCI Invitational was important not just for the results, but for how the team got them. In previous seasons the Bears have struggled with maintaining their edge even when they have one. Although last season saw Cal make impressive comebacks against top-ranked teams, its play against weaker opponents wasn’t indicative of talent but rather inconsistency.

“We flexed in and out of different lineups, different formations and we did some things that we have only spent a little while practicing on,” Crosson said. “Even with the ability to do that, we still maintained a really good level of activation and a really good level of mental discipline to pay attention to the right things and keep ourselves in the moment.”

Next weekend’s North Dakota State Classic will be the third and final nonconference tournament weekend for the Bears. After playing in the midwest, Cal will have two matches against Saint Mary’s before kicking off Pac-12 play at home.

“In terms of where we are in our season, we’re still looking for what are our best options as we approach conference in terms of lineups and our best systems,” Crosson said.

Cal plays only twice in this upcoming tournament, but both matches are Friday. The Bears will take on Buffalo at 10:30 a.m. before closing out the evening with a 5:30 p.m. matchup against North Dakota State.

Both teams rank well-below UC Irvine in the NCAA’s rating percentage index, making this weekend more about the Bears focusing on their side of the net and working out their own kinks before their home opener.

“The seniors and juniors of this group have really been dialed in with understanding what we’re trying to do, and I think the culture of this group is starting to become more of a group mentality and not an individual mentality,” Crosson said.

Last weekend marked the end of three-match tournaments, but they do say that good things come in pairs. The Bears have several weekends ahead featuring pairs of matches — and this one is just the start.

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