Final few: Cal volleyball hosts last two matches of regular season

Maya Valluru/Staff

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The year may be winding down, but Cal volleyball’s season is only getting more exciting. This weekend, No. 20 Cal will host USC and UCLA for the Bears’ final home matches of the regular season. Both teams upset Cal when the squad visited its Southern California foes a few weeks ago, making this weekend all the more important for the Bears.

“The last time we played these teams, both won the serve-and-pass battle and won the outside hitter battle as well,” said Cal volleyball head coach Sam Crosson. “Overall, I think it’s going to be an awesome experience and battle for our team. I think there’s a little extra motivation because these are two teams that beat us last time, and senior night is on Sunday.”

Up first for the Bears will be the Bruins in a Friday afternoon match. With Cal men’s basketball occupying Haas Pavilion that evening, the volleyball match has been moved up a few hours, which will likely result in fewer Cal fans and less home energy for the Bears.

Without a true home environment, Cal will have to be self-reliant to come out on top against UCLA, a program that appeared to fall off the ladder, but has been making recent and impressive strides back to the top.

Led by all-around star Mac May, the Bruins swept the No. 4 Stanford Cardinal in the same weekend during which they beat the Bears, 3-1. Yes, they swept the defending national champion — that can’t be taken lightly.

The Cardinal lacked star and savior Kathryn Plummer, but UCLA’s wins that weekend still highlighted the Bruins’ capability.

“UCLA has good ball control, good defense. If they’re serving the ball well behind that block and defense, and if Mac May gets going, that’s a tough team to beat,” Crosson said.

Since that weekend, however, the Bruins have once again fallen off the win wagon. UCLA will arrive in Berkeley with its three consecutive losses still fresh in the Bruins’ minds.

Both of UCLA’s setters, Devon Chang and Cali Thompson, are relatively new to the conference. Chang is a sophomore who saw time in about half of the team’s matches last year, while Thompson is a senior transfer student from Portland. Veterans like May and senior Savvy Simo have attempted to fill the shoes of graduated players, but the Bruins could have used more experience and leadership this season.

Regardless of Friday’s result, Cal will host USC for its final home match of the regular season. Led by powerhouse hitter Khalia Lanier, the Trojans (14-10, 8-6) have also had several noteworthy performances, including a narrow loss to Stanford and two wins over Washington.

“Lanier has been showing in the last three or four matches — she’s been putting up 30 or 40 kills,” Crosson said. “That’s impressive.”

Lanier is currently ranked sixth in the nation in kills, averaging 5.07 per set — a figure that only appears to be rising as she continues to get fed the ball.

Sunday’s showdown, like Friday, could easily go either way. But if the Bears are still in pursuit of the conference title, they have no room for another loss to either team. Stanford’s 12-2 conference record has kept the team holding the top slot in the Pac-12. For the Bears to win it, the Cardinal would need to drop another match and Cal would have to topple its six remaining opponents, including Stanford.

For now, the Bears’ focus is on UCLA and USC. Prior to the match against the Trojans, Cal’s six seniors will be honored in a pre-match ceremony. The group of seniors has been instrumental in leading this Cal program under yet another coaching change — Crosson is the seniors’ fourth coach they’ve had in four years. If the Bears were to get these last two home wins, it would be extra special for these veteran players.

“Both these teams have an outside hitter that can potentially dominate a match — that’s certainly a strength for them,” Crosson explained. “In looking at these matches, our team looks at it like we know we weren’t as good as we could have been when we were down there … We’re having a good week of practice, our team is overall pretty healthy and we’re excited for the weekend.”

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