Midterm season: Cal to be tested against Stanford and USC

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Rivalry week is a special time on college campuses — the increased hype and anticipation are palpable in the air as the teams prepare for the intense matchup. Frankly, rival games just mean more.

If a single rivalry game is an occasion for increased effort and heartfelt emotion, then Cal volleyball is in for quite the ride this week. Not only do the Bears begin their conference play Wednesday, but they’ll also do so against bitter rival Stanford before hosting their Southern California foe, USC, on Sunday.

The Pac-12 conference is certainly an unforgiving powerhouse when it comes to volleyball, and Cal’s first two games coming against top teams in the conference are only the beginning of the tough journey that lies before it. Its opponents, Stanford and USC, were picked to finish in the top six in the Pac-12 coaches poll; Cal slotted in at 10.

“One of our goals is finishing top five in the Pac-12,” said senior Katie Smoot. “We have been voted almost dead last in the Pac-12, but I think it’s something we are completely capable of doing. ”

Stanford comes in as the second-highest-ranked Pac-12 team at 14 in the AVCA Coaches Poll. Though they sit at just 5-3 overall, the Cardinal have had one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the country, facing off against six top-20 teams. Stanford’s season has been highlighted by wins over then-No.5 Florida, No.18 Penn State and No.6 Nebraska.

The Cardinal are led by outside hitter Caitie Baird, who leads the team in points and kills, and freshman standout setter Kami Miner, who is averaging an impressive 11.52 assists per set.

Meanwhile, USC has not quite found the same success against ranked opponents such as Stanford, and it enters the Pac-12 play a game under .500.

Despite the Trojans coming in with better stats than Cal across nearly the entire board — USC averages more kills per set and boasts a higher hitting percentage than the Bears — the red and gold have struggled with serving. Though the Trojans are averaging more aces per set — 1.5 to the Bears’ 1.2 — they have committed a whopping 91 errors at the service line for an average of 10.11 per game, or 2.6 per set.

Committing errors on serve can both be demoralizing and provide an opportunity for the opposing team to claw back into sets. Errors put no pressure on the receiving team to make a play. USC, which averages nearly twice as many serving errors as aces, will need to cut down on the service errors if it wants to start consistently winning games.

On the other side of the net, Cal has been fantastic at limiting opposing team’s damages, as it has held its foes to just a .184 hitting percentage. Yet, it still needs to find consistency within its matches, something that head coach Sam Crosson believes can be helped by the experienced upperclassman.

“Experience goes a long way, especially in end of sets — the 22 alls,” Crosson said. “It’s really nice to have two seniors out there to know how they can react in those environments.”

Those two seniors, Smoot and Mima Mirkovic, have been electric thus far in the season, leading the team in kills and contributing heavily across the stat sheet. Crosson believes work still needs to be done in both their leadership roles and ability to stay levelheaded, however, if they are to take down either of their rivals this week.

“I can certainly appreciate the amount of self-pressure that those two put on themselves in terms of performance. Both of them at times though start to feel like they have to be on for us to be good,” Crosson said. “If you want to get the best of (your teammates), you want to find ways to lead by guided assistance and support as opposed to coming down on them.”

Cal’s game against Stanford will be played Wednesday night at 7 p.m. in Palo Alto, after which it will host USC at 2 p.m. Sunday at Haas Pavilion.

Noah Parker covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected].