Into the unknown: Cal volleyball set to play UCLA in 1st conference game

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“We’re excited to just go out and compete and play volleyball,” said Cal volleyball head coach Sam Crosson.

Cal will play in its first match of the season Friday. The Bears are set to take on the Bruins, who were ranked No. 4 in the Pac-12 preseason coaches’ poll, at Pauley Pavilion. Led by 2019 Pac-12 Player of the Year Mac May and a strong roster of returning players, UCLA will certainly be a tough team to beat.

But for Crosson, the team is heading into Friday with goals of gaining experience and learning which areas require more practice.

“It’s a little nerve-wracking just because we’re going to be exceptionally young and inexperienced, so there’s certainly some identity and development that we’re looking to continue on throughout this weekend and the season. But I know the girls are looking forward to it,” Crosson said.

This season’s team looks significantly different from the 2019 roster, as most members of last season’s starting lineup graduated last spring.

“We don’t have a lot of returners with a lot of match time experience, so it almost feels like we’re starting anew,” Crosson said.

Although the team is trying to avoid setting too many lofty expectations, Crosson and the rest of the coaching staff are hoping to get a better look at how the team responds in a match environment. Unlike typical seasons, in which teams get about four weeks of nonconference play to get a sense of starting lineups and rotations for both themselves and their opponents, this year, the Bears are jumping right into conference matches.

“I want to see our kids go out there on Friday at 2 and leave it out there for however long it takes, whether it’s three sets, five sets, win or lose, and just find out what we’re made of,” Crosson said.

Based on the very limited information the team has regarding UCLA’s lineups and plays, Friday’s match will certainly be challenging for Cal. But the pandemic has prevented most teams and players from getting in the gym and training together up until now.

According to Crosson, most teams in the conference are working to get back up to how they remember the 2019 season to be, so it will be interesting to see how teams across the Pac-12 perform this weekend.

“Everyone wants to go out there and compete and try to think that it’s going to be kind of a carryover, and the reality is that for our players at Cal, the lack of being able to be in a gym or to be able to train with all the COVID stuff going on, for a lot of them, it’s just trying to get back on the bike again and get back up to feeling like I’m performing back at the level that I was performing at,” Crosson said.

Everything from the layout of the gym to the lack of fans to match protocols such as mask mandates will be a first for players. It’s yet another obstacle for the Bears and the rest of the conference to navigate through.

After waiting almost a year, Cal fans should be excited to finally experience a match, even if only through a screen.

However, fans should bear in mind that since the lockdown began, players have not been able to train, neither individually nor as a team, as much as they would have before the start of a typical season. The entire roster reported back to Berkeley on Dec. 28, and the team’s first official practice was held Jan. 5. The Bears have about two and a half weeks of team practice under their belts, and hopefully, if the season can continue smoothly without any health issues, fans will start to see flashes of resemblance to the 2019 team after a few matches.

“It’s going to be more about the dynamics of our group,” Crosson said. “Obviously, in our sport, it’s a game of who can execute better.”

Amber Fang covers volleyball. Contact her at jasper[email protected].