Nine straight for No. 9: Bears notch best ranking in program history

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There comes a time when every team needs to face the music. And Sunday, March 8, at 10 a.m., the Cal beach volleyball team faced its biggest moment of the season. In a match against No. 5 USC, the No. 11 Bears took advantage of the moment to remind the rest of the Pac-12 conference just how good they could be, even in the face of fierce competition at the Pac-12 South Tournament on March 7 and March 8 in Santa Monica.

After sweeping away mostly unranked competition at the Bay Area Classic from Feb. 29 to March 1, Cal continued its run of good form by picking up two wins against Washington and Oregon in handily fashion March 7. And although the team had certainly captured a solid run, there still seemed to be a sense of uneasiness as to how the team matches up against ranked competition.

After going up 2-0 early on, the Bears nearly saw their lead vanish and subsequently almost dropped the match. Cal’s Pac-12 Conference Pair of the Week of Alexia Inman and Madison Dueck saw their streak end after maintaining an unbeaten start to the season that lasted two and a half weekends. When key contributors and leaders of the team faced adversity, other members stepped up, and they did so in an emphatic and dramatic fashion.

Junior Maddie Micheletti and freshman Ainsley Radell saw the Bears through by winning straight sets on court 4.

But in the deciding match, spectators were offered quite possibly the defining moment of the season. Setting up a deciding third set against USC, the pair of junior Mima Mirkovic and senior Iya Lindahl were faced with a 14-14 tie. With the match on the line, acting head coach Derek Olson elected to keep the players in, maintaining his confidence in them.

They rewarded that confidence by securing 2 straight points to end the match, and demonstrated the type of self-assurance that has gotten the team to this point.

Given that the Bears’ unbeaten streak had reached five before the Pac-12 South Tournament, one might have assumed their ranking would jump, but they stood pat at their preseason ranking as No. 11.

If one were to ask any of the players how they felt about that, they would probably get a universal answer about how things like that leave them unbothered. Since before the season started, there has been a constant reminder from players and coaches to maintain a sense of continuity in both their approach to matches and while playing in them.

It appears to have served them well in both aspects, as there never seems to be a moment where the team finds themselves either too high or too low.

Their attitude was ultimately rewarded as their efforts in Santa Monica launched the Bears to a No. 9 ranking — their highest placement in program history.

Even as four matches on a road slate tend to happen quickly, it might be easy for a team to get caught up in the moment. But it’s only becoming clearer with each passing tournament that the squad has a special acumen for becoming better with each set of matches — and its new ranking supports this clarity.

For a team that seems to be aware of its potential and what it takes to reach it, it seems that right now the only thing that can stop the Bears from achieving their goals is their own focus. Having only ever beaten USC once in school history, Cal played like they never knew it.

With nine straight victories under their belts, the Bears demand a certain amount of respect that has never been afforded to the team prior to this season. But don’t expect them to come out and demand it, because the way they have been playing does it for them. And that’s exactly how they like it.

Sean Applegate covers beach volleyball. Contact him at [email protected].