Young Bears lose season openers to No. 22 Bruins

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This season, student-athletes are settling into a new reality: games with no fans, new match protocols and masks everywhere. For Cal volleyball, these conditions were simply another opportunity to learn more about themselves.

“Whoever can kind of settle in and focus on the task at hand, which is just executing for a long period of time at a high level, is certainly going to have an advantage,” said Cal volleyball head coach Sam Crosson.

This past Friday, Cal fans experienced an emotional roller coaster while watching the young team fight against No. 22 UCLA. After almost a year of inactivity, fans were finally able to watch the blue and gold suit up in their first match of the season. And while the roster looks very different than it did in 2019, the relatively inexperienced Bears stepped up to the challenge and managed to steal a set before losing the match in four sets.

Over the course of each set, the Bears fought valiantly to come back from large point deficits. However, as the match stretched on, the Bruins’ experience was what ultimately made the difference against their younger counterparts.

After falling into a seven-point hole, Cal managed to shrink the difference down to 24-21 before UCLA closed out the set, 25-22.

Even so, the Bears battled back in an exhilarating second set that ended in a 39-37 win for the blue and gold. After tying the set at 18 points, neither team was able to widen its lead beyond two. Opposite hitter Sydney Lilomaiava earned five of her 13 kills in overtime and ultimately led the Bears to their first and only victory.

Sunday’s match was a similar story for Cal, as the team lost to the Bruins in three straight sets.

Going into the match, Crosson said he was looking to provide freshmen and returners with more experience. With Cal losing top hitters Savannah Rennie, Maddie Haynes and Mima Mirkovic and top blockers Preslie Anderson and Lauren Forte, the team was set to play with a totally new lineup of fresh faces.

“Probably one of the biggest [goals] for me is just to see how our group responds, and responds in terms of the good, the bad, and everything in between,” Crosson said.

Despite suffering two losses, the young team showed plenty of potential for the rest of the season.

“Sometimes, it’s just the reality of, we’re doing a lot of good things in theory, we’re just not executing as well as we’d like,” Crosson said. “It’s really hard to put a dot on it and say, ‘At what point is the amount of time that we’ve been back in the gym sufficient to be able to start expecting better execution?’”

Losses aside, the freshmen dominated in their first NCAA opener.

Outside hitter Katarina Pantovic and middle blocker Lydia Grote led the team in kills in an explosive collegiate debut Friday, as Grote earned a team-high 18 kills, and Pantovic fell just short of a double-double. Pantovic also racked up double-digit kills in both matches.

Freshman libero Lexi Gruszczynski earned a team-high 14 digs Friday and led the team with eight digs Sunday. Meanwhile, junior libero Gabby Bellizzi had two five-point service runs and dug out nine balls Friday.

Moving forward, the blue and gold will play two matches each week, so fans should prepare to tune in every weekend to watch the Bears’ progress.

This weekend, the Bears will host No. 10 Utah at Haas Pavilion in a double match scheduled for Friday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at noon.

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