There was snow on the ground when No. 24 Cal volleyball arrived in Boulder for its match against Colorado, but the Bears’ trip was far from a jaunt to a magical winter wonderland. Lacking two key starters, Cal fell 3-1 to Colorado before surrendering another 3-1 match to No. 16 Utah.
The last time the Bears and the Buffs faced off, Cal just barely came out on top with a 3-2 win. That was weeks ago, back when the team was healthy. This weekend, however, the Bears missed the presence of libero Gabby Bellizzi, because of sickness — in addition to junior outside hitter Mima Mirkovic, who suffered an ankle injury last weekend.
“I had to play a position I had never played before,” said Savannah Rennie, who is typically a right side hitter. “I played DS, which is what Gabby (Bellizzi) plays. We had to fill roles and be the best we could be in that position.”
Cal’s middles, Preslie Anderson and Lauren Forte, led the offensive charge for the team, tallying 10 and 13 kills, respectively. But it wasn’t a balanced enough offense as outside hitter Maddie Haynes only managed to put down 8 on a .032 hitting percentage, and Bailee Huizenga didn’t fare much better.
The match’s brighter takeaway came from Makana Meyer and her career-high 11 kills on a .207 hitting clip. Since Mirkovic’s injury last weekend, Meyer has stepped into Mirkovic’s front row shoes, while sophomore Jessica Houghton has taken the defensive role.
Despite Meyer’s more consistent performance, Colorado’s Meegan Hart and Sterling Parker were practically unstoppable. The pair of hitters and setter Jenna Ewert led their team to take the first set 25-16. Although the Bears fell once again in the second set, 25-23, their newfound stability allowed them to keep the match from coming to a close as they took the third 25-23.
But they wouldn’t muster a full comeback. Cal ultimately surrendered the fourth set to Colorado in a 25-18 battle.
“We didn’t execute in certain areas which resulted in the loss,” Rennie said. “It’s hard to catch a rhythm. Not having them … doesn’t need to dictate how we play as individuals.”
After a day off which was undoubtedly spent watching the Big Game from several states away, Cal took to the court once again for a match against No. 16 Utah.
The two teams’ last encounter was also another five-set win for Cal, but this match’s result would be no different from Friday’s.
After dropping the first set to the Utes 25-16, the Bears responded with a 26-24 second set win. With sophomore Jade Blevins joining junior Isabel Potter at the setting helm, Cal was poised to keep trudging past the Utes.
“We had a little bit more of a fire coming into the second set because we didn’t perform in the first set like we wanted to,” Rennie said. “We started to execute better which feeds into the fire that you have.”
But the Bears couldn’t maintain the fire. In the third set, a key run by the Utes allowed them to extend a 16-13 lead to 22-13 in a matter of minutes — and a few plays later, Utah had the 2-1 overall lead.
The only player on either side of the net to swing above .200 with more than 10 attempts was Utah’s Kenzie Koerber, but she and her teammates still managed to take the fourth set, and with it another win that placed the team third in conference.
The Bears are now riding a four-game losing streak, their longest of the year, but still have two final conference matches to play.
Without much turnaround between trips, Cal is set to play in Seattle on Wednesday against No. 8 Washington, which beat Stanford back in the teams’ second match of Pac-12 play.
“We’re underdogs and we have to embrace the underdog mentality,” Rennie explained. “We have nothing to lose.”
The Huskies, seated second in the conference rankings, will be the best preparation the Bears could ask for heading into the Big Spike on Friday and into the NCAA tournament.
In the final showdown of the season, Cal and No. 4 Stanford will wrap up Pac-12 play in Maples Pavilion. Although Stanford will be named the conference champion after the match, Cal still has a shot at victory — especially if the Bears are healthy.
“We’re going to take on each set, each point relentlessly,” Rennie said. “Going into the tournament, it’s great to have momentum and that confidence is something that we need. Going into these last two matches, that’s what we’re going to embrace and hopefully it’ll result in a couple W’s.”