Starting conference play strong is a goal that every team in the country strives to achieve. It’s easy to talk the talk, but very hard to walk the walk, however — especially in a conference as strong as the Pac-12.
While Cal volleyball started as well as one could against tough competition, the blue and gold ultimately dropped five straight sets en route to a 0-2 start to conference play.
The Bears showed no hang-ups from the loss in their final non-conference game, storming out of the gates to a 26-24 victory over the Cardinal in the opening set. Despite trailing 24-23 in the opener, junior Bella Bergmark was able to prevent a Stanford match point with a clutch kill, while an error and subsequent kill by Katie Smoot sealed an opening win for the Bears.
Cal continued to match the No. 14 Cardinal in the following sets, but numerous runs by rivals from the Farm managed to sink the Bears. By the fourth set, the blue and gold had run out of gas, and Stanford cruised to a 25-14 set win to take the match by a score of 3-1.
While the Bears drew the short stick by playing highly talented and ranked Stanford, the Bears faced their more manageable foe, USC, on Sunday. The Trojans, though picked to finish in the top half of the conference in the preseason coaches poll, have struggled through the start of their season, recently losing to No. 19 UCLA in four sets earlier in the week.
The Trojans appeared to shake off the early-season cobwebs in Berkeley, however, as they blitzed the Bears 3-1. Though the first three sets were all close, the Trojans were able to close out in late games, a skill the Bears have lacked so far this season.
Despite playing sound defense and holding the Trojans to a .142 attack percentage, the Bears couldn’t find any rhythm of their own on the offensive side of the net. Through the first two sets, Cal was held to a lowly .072 hitting percentage, and it fell to a season low 0.023 by the end of the match.
Cal was plagued by sloppy passing and miscommunication throughout the whole game, but the Bears exhibited moments of promise when the offense was clicking. Sophomore libero Tara DeSa was particularly impressive, leading the Bears with 25 digs — many of which defended against strong USC spikes — as she settled into a more prominent role in the Bear lineup.
“I think there are certainly some positive outcomes to getting to more of a solidified offensive system as opposed to bouncing around mid match,” said head coach Sam Crosson. “I think it gives the group a little more solidarity and is certainly easier for the setters.”
The Bears will remain in friendly confines next week, as they host the Arizona schools to continue their conference schedule. While it’s hard to label any games as “must-wins” this early in the season, these upcoming games certainly fall into that category if Cal has any hopes of a high Pac-12 finish or postseason berth.
Arizona, which the Bears will host on Friday, will enter Haas Pavilion on a five-game winning streak and with a 10-3 record (2-0 in the Pac-12). Cal and Arizona share one common opponent — UC San Diego — who they both beat in straight sets earlier this year.
The Sun Devils, on the other hand, have lost both their Pac-12 matchups thus far; ASU lost in excruciating fashion to both Arizona and No. 13 Oregon in five sets. In terms of comparison, ASU beat UC Davis, a team that beat Cal in four sets, by a score of 3-0 earlier in the season.
While the Bears lost the opportunity to start conference play with a resounding bang, they have plenty of time to get the train back on the rails, starting with these weekend matchups.
Noah Parker covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected].