The Pac-12, also known as the Conference of Champions, will finally see its teams battle against one another this week as conference play begins. Prior to playing Washington State on Saturday, No. 21 Cal (10-0) will host long-standing archenemy and defending national champion, No. 1 Stanford, on Thursday.
“We like to take it game by game,” said middle blocker Preslie Anderson. “It might seem that we should be scared or that we should have this nervous feeling, but it’s just another game to us. (head coach Sam Crosson) does such a good job of preparing every game the same way.”
Stanford returns much of its starting lineup from last season, including setter Jenna Gray and all-around standout Kathryn Plummer. Gray currently sits second in the nation’s rankings for assists per set. As the Cardinal’s full-time setter, she has proved herself a critical part of the Stanford magic.
It goes without saying that the favorite player to set is Plummer, who once dominated the sand with partner Cal junior Mima Mirkovic before starting college. Although Plummer averages 5.37 kills per set, she’s certainly not the Cardinal’s only offensive — or defensive — asset.
The Cardinal (6-2) fell to then-No.8 Minnesota and then-No. 12 BYU in four-set matches. Stanford comes to Haas Pavilion fresh off the BYU loss — a particularly painful defeat considering the program hasn’t seen a loss in Maples since 2016. Yet the match couldn’t have had a more contested ending with the Cardinal finally falling to the Cougars 31-29 in the fourth set.
And while Stanford may be eager to show its dominance fully at the start of Pac-12 play, especially after suffering a bitter loss, it’s likely that the squad may still overlook what the underdogs will bring to the court.
Offensively, Cal boasts some of the best hitters in the country. Scratch that. UC Berkeley is home to the single most effective swinger in the nation — junior Preslie Anderson. Anderson, who is riding a .523 hitting percentage, sits atop the NCAA’s individual rankings with fellow middle blocker and redshirt senior Savannah Rennie just below at No. 8
“Every single year you’re seeing a more balanced offense from Cal volleyball,” Anderson said. “We want to make it hard on our opponent. … To know that the ball can be set to any given person, at any time — the teams have to start respecting every person in our front row.”
Senior Maddie Haynes joins Mirkovic as complements to the team’s well-spread offense as the go-to outside hitters. While Haynes’ height will be necessary in helping shut down Stanford’s big hitters, Mirkovic’s ability to see the court and strategically place the ball will be critical for Cal to tally points.
Squaring up directly against Stanford’s Plummer, and reigning AVCA player of the year, will be senior Bailee Huizenga, the Bears’ third best blocker. Behind her, we will either see senior Emma Smith or redshirt junior Kat Knop as libero.
While the defending champion will arrive at Haas with an aura of perfection, the Cardinal has already been defeated twice this season, and a scenario with the Bears on top can’t be overlooked.
Moving into its second Pac-12 match of the season, Cal will host Washington State in another home match. Prior to Wazzu’s game against long-standing rival No. 8 Washington, the Cougars were 11-1, having only dropped a match to Iowa in their opening weekend.
Wazzu doesn’t generate buzz quite like the Cardinal, although the Cougars still have a strong program. The Bears will need to maintain their high caliber play and take the match like they have any other.
For Cal, its season is the Bears’ best start since 2011, when Cal began the season 13-0. In addition to the strong start for the Bears, they’ve found themselves ranked in the top 25 for the first time since 2013, but it’s not the team’s main focus by any means.
“The ranking was more of a pat on the back,” Anderson said. “We’re glad we got the recognition but we also understand that it means nothing at the end of the day. If we’re not playing Cal volleyball … we won’t be satisfied. Honestly, we won’t be satisfied until we win the last game of our season.”
While a Stanford win is expected by most, a Cal upset would be its first win over Stanford since 2011. It would shake the entire volleyball world, keep the Bears undefeated, make obvious Cal’s strength to those who have overlooked the team and instill in the Cardinal a new level of dislike for blue and gold. Conference of Champions, here’s to another season of good volleyball.