Cal volleyball readies for 2 tough road matches

Emma Drake/Staff

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No. 24 Cal volleyball took a four-slot tumble in this week’s AVCA poll as the Bears suffered back-to-back losses to their unranked Southern California foes in their last homestand of the year. But the Bears can still finish strong.

Cal is set to begin its four-match road trip that is spread out over the final two weeks of the season. The Bears will stop in Colorado, then Utah before heading back home for a final week of practice and of Pac-12 competition.

A team that starts conference play with 10 straight losses may not build the image of a strong program, but Cal treats every match the same. Although inconsistent, Colorado is still a Pac-12 team — the Buffaloes have talent that’s capable of toppling some of the best. Two weeks ago, the team conquered UCLA in Los Angeles after winning two against the Arizona schools.

Although Colorado dropped both of its matches last weekend, it barely surrendered its battle against Washington State, suffering a narrow, five-set loss.

“(We should) not (be) worrying about what we’ve done in the past and how we’ve done in the past, but focusing on the next game and who’s our next opponent,” said senior outside hitter Maddie Haynes. “Knowing what we need to do, and how to do it, and staying healthy is most important.”

Last weekend in the Bears’ match against UCLA, outside hitter Mima Mirkovic suffered an ankle injury, leaving the team down a key all-around player and making health the focus going forward. Should Mirkovic remain sidelined because of her injury, Colorado and Utah will both be able to apply more pressure to defending Cal’s middle and right side hitters.

To diversify their offense, the Bears may run a 6-2 formation with sophomore Jade Blevins setting along with junior Isabel Potter, but Cal will need a reliable and effective opposite to be able to go in. With redshirt Savannah Rennie playing on an ACL injury, it’s not clear if she can fully contribute, and Cal may end sticking with the 5-1.

“These are all road games now,” Haynes said. “Staying healthy is the most important thing. And I think being smart — executing scouting report.”

In terms of scouting Utah, the Utes (19-8, 11-5) lead the Bears in conference standings by a game and boast one of the best hitters in the conference. Junior Dani Drews leads the Pac-12 in the number of kills on the season with 506 and ranks fourth in the conference for kills per set with 4.60, just behind UCLA’s Mac May.

Drews’ dominance at the net, combined with Brianna Doehrmann’s command of the back row, will be a challenge for the Bears, especially because the team now lacks Mirkovic.

“I think it’s important that we had one of our main outsides go down — one of our main executors out of the game — but I think that’s all part of the game. We have 17 other girls who all prepare and practice,” Haynes said. “It’s unfortunate, but that’s how our game is. There’s going to be distractions and adversity to the game, but who’s going to step up and take the role?”

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