If there is any other Pac-12 team more universally disliked in Berkeley, it would be West Coast foe Nevada — the Wolfpack just slashed any hope for an undefeated Cal football season.
While the only revenge the football team can exact on the desert school is flexing its academic might, Cal volleyball has a chance for a much more tangible payback. The Bears will invite the Wolfpack into their lair Friday as part of the Cal tournament.
Not only will the blue and gold be back playing in friendly confines for their first home game of the season, but it will welcome fans back into Haas Pavilion for the first time since Nov. 17, 2019 — nearly two years ago.
“It’s really exciting to be back, just in comparison to our spring COVID-19 season,” said head coach Sam Crosson. “There is definitely a shift towards normalcy.”
There may be no better time to have fans back in full force as the Bears are playing their best volleyball in years. After sweeping through the Pacific tournament, Cal boasts a solid 5-1 record through two preseason tournaments.
“I took for granted how nice it is to play out of conference teams to prepare yourself for such a hard Pac-12 season,” said senior outside hitter Katie Smoot. “It has been really good, figuring out what our weakest points are without a tremendous loss in the season.”
Despite coming in as the biggest opposing name in the tournament, Nevada has limped through its preseason thus far, compiling just one win to five losses. After having a reasonably successful campaign in 2019 in which it finished four games more than .500, the program has declined over the past two years.
Meanwhile, North Dakota State and Butler — the two teams rounding out the tournament field — both enter with 3-3 records, though they have only faced one Power-5 team combined (Butler lost to Indiana 3-0). Cal most recently faced NDSU in 2019, in which it won in four sets.
This will be Cal’s third and last tournament as it prepares for the upcoming conference slate. Its opening Pac-12 matchup will be against Stanford in just under two weeks.
“Everyone coming to this tournament is a good team; no one should be taken for granted,” Smoot said. “They’re not gonna back down just cause we are a Pac-12 team.”
Past their overall 5-1 record, the Bears have put together some solid peripherals. They are out-hitting their opponents .283 to .136, averaging 2.8 more kills per set and, possibly most importantly, have committed 34 fewer errors over their six games.
Four Bears — Smoot, Mima Mirkovic, Bella Bergmark and Leah Schmidt — have led the charge on offense, all contributing more than 40 points individually while combining for more than 70% of Cal’s total points as a group.
While Smoot leads the team with nearly double the kills of the next closest Bear, it has been Bergmark who has risen to the top of Cal’s reliability rankings; her .405 hitting percentage leads all qualified teammates, while also playing in all 21 of the Bears’ sets.
Bergmark’s success, though seemingly sudden, has been a long time coming. Her solid play in the shortened season last year coupled with an offseason of hard work has really elevated her performance.
“(Bergmark) would be one that came back and started fall camp and looks like she made a lot of progress physically and how she is performing on the court,” Crosson said.
Bergmark and company hope to avenge Cal football’s loss in their first game Friday, Sept. 10 before taking on NDSU later in the day. Their tournament final against Butler will be played Saturday, Sept. 11 as the Bears look to capitalize on one of their last chances to work out their kinks before conference play.
Noah Parker covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected].