No. 24 Cal set to play Saint Mary’s in home opener

Lorenzo Dela Cruz/Staff

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Imagine a world where Cal football beat No. 14 Washington and is, itself, now ranked No. 23. Plausible? I guess, but predictable? Hardly. Now imagine, in that same world, Cal volleyball is not only undefeated eight matches into its season, but ranked No. 24 in the AVCA poll. Yes, that world is far from expected, yet somehow it has become Cal’s reality.

This week marked the first time Cal volleyball has been named part of the nation’s top 25 list since 2013, the same season that saw the Bears advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

With the new numbers attached to its name, Cal will host Saint Mary’s on Thursday for its home opener match before playing the Gaels for a second time on Saturday in Moraga.

But the Bears’ new bling can’t hide the lasting sting from the Gaels’ sweep at McKeon Pavilion last season. Saint Mary’s win was the first time the program swept Cal since 1998 and the Gaels continue to boast a strong program.

Although Saint Mary’s lineup features several underclassmen new to the collegiate game, the young Gaels are proving themselves consistent forces within the team. Freshman Elena Baka, in particular, is coming off a weekend that saw her notch 17 kills in a win over Cornell.

Joining her at the net is redshirt senior Aubrey Pitts. The 6’ 2” middle blocker was critical in storming past then-No. 23 Cal Poly with a 3-0 sweep in the teams’ opening weekend. Pitts led her team with five blocks and recorded a .615 hitting percentage on her 13 swings to come out ahead of the former Big West champs.

In addition to having a strong offense, the Gaels’ senior setter Alexsa “Crash” Parker is known for being a formidable serving force, something Cal head coach Sam Crosson has on his radar.

“Saint Mary’s is a really good serving team,” Crosson said. “The challenge for us, on one hand, is how we can handle, maintain and control first contacts on serve receive. They’re going to come at us hard.”

In terms of Cal’s side of the net, the Bears are still figuring out their optimal rotation, toggling between the 6-2 with junior Isabel Potter and sophomore Jade Blevins, and a 5-1, run exclusively by Potter. The past few weekends have seen mixtures of both rotations, with hitters being worked in and out of the different lineups.

“Everyone on the roster needs to be ready to play,” Crosson said. “We’ve been moving around lineups and certain formations and positions. We’re going to be a constant work in progress — this group is looking to continually improve.”

Although Cal initially struggled on defense last weekend against North Dakota State, senior Emma Smith has been a consistent libero for the team, totaling 104 digs and 22 assists.

Crosson has been stressing the need for strong serving and steady passing, aspects that’ll only be more important in these next two matches against Saint Mary’s. The Gaels are the Bears’ final opponent before they open conference play at home against No. 2 Stanford.

This world of Cal athletics may still be unfathomable, but there’s no time for daydreaming. It’s only a reality for as long as the Bears can defend it.

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