It’s a pivotal moment at the tail end of the third set. Cal and Stanford are tied with a set apiece and libero Emma Smith serves a floater over for the Bears, who are down 22-23. The ball crosses the net, crosses it again, and again — and then again. It was another nine plays before the Bears secured the point with outside hitter Maddie Haynes stuff blocking McKenna Vicini. And as Haynes forced the ball onto the ground on the Cardinal’s side of the net, Cal fans were already in the air.
People jumped, shouted “Go Bears” and danced alongside Oski. It was a beautiful moment for Cal volleyball, but the Bears couldn’t sustain that high-quality execution throughout the match.
Cal would end up dropping that set 27-25 to the then-No. 1 team in the country, giving the Cardinal a 2-1 lead on the match which would eventually win 3-1. Along with the sting of falling to their biggest rival, the loss blemished the Bears’ previously perfect record.
“The positive is that they’re the No. 1 team in the nation, and we beat ourselves,” said Smith, following the match. “They beat us, but everything we can control. If we minimize some errors, make a few more plays … we could beat the No. 1 team in the nation. We do gain confidence from knowing that we’re capable.”
Leading the Bears with her 13 digs, Smith’s terribly difficult job of defending Stanford’s iron-strong offense was made slightly easier by her blockers at the net. Cal recorded 12 block attempts, with Haynes and junior Preslie Anderson making the most significant contributions. Even still, Stanford outside hitter Kathryn Plummer recorded 22 kills.
“I thought we did a really nice job at the net in terms of our block and scouting,” said Cal head coach Sam Crosson. “We touched a lot of balls, we got some blocks, we somewhat limited a very high-octane offense.”
Cal’s struggle was more visible in its own offensive efforts. Unable to maintain consistency against one of the biggest blocking teams in the conference and one of the liberos, Morgan Hentz, the Bears struggled to find smart spots.
“As the match went on, I think it was harder for us to generate points,” Crosson said. “We got a little bit more frustrated in terms of the size of the block … or our shots that we were hitting in the preseason (which) all of a sudden weren’t working as well.”
Surrounded by the second-highest number of people packing Haas Pavilion in Cal volleyball history, the Bears dropped the match 3-1 — narrowly missing the opportunity for a fifth set, but promising a bright future.
“Normally, we kind of roll over and I think we really held our own,” Smith said. “They were definitely nervous. I think by the time we play them at the end of the year, we could take them.”
After that memorable Thursday night, Cal hosted its second Pac-12 match, beating Washington State 3-2 Saturday.
The then-unranked Cougars arrived in Berkeley fresh off of a huge upset over in-state rival No. 8 Washington. If that wasn’t mind-boggling enough, that same Washington squad, who lost to Wazzu, toppled defending national champion Stanford in the Cardinal’s own home.
To sum up it up: Cal beat Wazzu, Wazzu beat Washington, Washington beat Stanford. But yes, Cal still fell to Stanford in that home opener. If anything, this first weekend of Pac-12 play proved that nearly every Pac-12 team has impressive talent. Each conference game from here on out will be a test of who brings the heat and can perform their best.
As the Bears jump up a state to play Oregon State and No. 25 Oregon, the Bears will need to come with that mindset — anyone can beat anyone.
Oregon is not the same team as last year, having lost several key players to graduation. Yet the Ducks are still competing with the best; they notably just toppled then-No. 18 Utah in a five-set showdown.
This weekend will bring its challenges, but if No. 19 Cal always plays like they were fighting for that one point in the third set against Stanford — the Bears can beat any team in the conference.