Cal doubles down as struggles continue in even sets

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Lisi Ludwig/Senior Staff

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Two, four, six, eight — what do the Bears appreciate?

While it’s probably not that youth soccer chant, it is certainly not even numbers: Cal has emerged victorious from an even number set just once in its last five games.

In fact, in their eight season losses, the Bears have only won an even number set three times. And that trend continued during this week’s losses to Arizona and Arizona State.

While it may seem to lack a deeper meaning, Cal’s adopted phobia of even numbers highlights its struggles to find consistency in matches — either a strong start falters by the second set or a late comeback fails to materialize in the fourth period.

It was the same story against the Arizona schools, especially versus the Sun Devils of Arizona State on Sunday. Cal absolutely dominated the first set, aided by Leah Schmidt’s third kill that handed the Bears a convincing 25-14 victory to start the match.

The blue and gold host couldn’t keep any of the momentum, however, and proceeded to drop the next three sets en route to another 3-1 loss to make their fourth straight game lost by that margin in Pac-12 play.

“My analogy is like the Chinese finger torture, the more you want to pull, the more its harder to do,” said head coach Sam Crosson of handling the tough times. “The traits of these players are all pretty good, but sometimes their states get a little wanky and when that happens there is a desire to start feeling that ‘I have to control everything instead of trusting my teammates.’”

Though disappointed by a finish that kept them winless in conference play, Crosson and the rest of the Bears’ coaching staff were pleasantly surprised by big contributions from unlikely sources.

Schmidt registered nine kills in both games this week to anchor the front line, while sophomore Kendall Jensen nearly doubled her season total with four aces on Sunday. Bella Bergmark continued her fantastic junior campaign by tying her career high of 12 kills while also adding seven blocks, and senior standout Katie Smoot also contributed a solid 13 kills.

In fact, the Bears scored 11 aces as a team against ASU, marking the first time the team has hit double-digit service scores in a game this season. Serve and receive, a facet of the game that coach Crosson stressed the importance of in winning games, has been a bright spot for the struggling Bears.

Despite some apparent strengths, Cal again couldn’t put together multiple successful sets in its Friday night loss to the visiting Arizona Wildcats, falling 20-25, 25-18, 23-25 and 25-23. While the Bears’ underlying stats were similar to that of the Wildcats — Cal hit .236 compared to Arizona’s .293 and actually committed fewer errors — they were unable to find those clutch plays at the end of sets to seal the victory.

“When you’re playing in games that are being decided by two or three points, which is the case for a lot of conference matches … those margins of errors are tough to make up,” Crosson said.

With those two losses, the Bears now sit a game under .500 overall and are still searching for their first win in the Pac-12. While the team is still early into its conference slate, Cal needs an urgent turnaround if it wants to compete in the postseason.

It doesn’t get any easier, as a trip to No. 14 Oregon awaits the Bears. But the best way to shake off a fear is through exposure. Maybe the Bears can confront their phobia of even numbers head-on Sunday when they face an evenly-ranked opponent.

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