Nowhere to go but up: Cal volleyball searches for 1st win

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There comes a point in any struggling team’s season when it appears to have hit rock bottom — both in terms of its morale and in the standings. Despite all of a squad’s sincere efforts, it seems like nothing is going its way.

Cal volleyball has reached that point.

Coming off a sweep to the hands of Oregon State — the only other team without a conference win entering the contest — the Bears have easily hit the lowest point of the season. At 0-6 in conference play, Cal sits in the Pac-12 basement only halfway into its season.

So maybe it’s fitting that Cal plays host to the mountain schools this weekend as it attempts to climb out the valley it has built for itself.

The Bears’ first chance to shake the shutout in their win column will come Friday night against the visiting Colorado Buffaloes. After an undefeated preseason, the Buffs have hit a slight snag in conference play, losing four of six and falling out of the top 25 rankings.

Colorado is still an especially sound team, however, backed by its .251 hitting percentage and 2.5 blocks per set. Sophomore Maya Tabron leads this Buffalo charge, as she comes off a masterful 18-kill, 16-dig performance against USC last week.

Luckily for Cal, the Buffs do have holes in their game, especially at the service line. Colorado is averaging just 1.0 ace per set while allowing 1.4 — a weakness that the Bears hope to exploit.

“Our No. 1 goal is to make pressure from the serving line because it gives us a chance to make great points,” said freshman setter Annalea Maeder.

Cal’s second opponent of the week, No. 17 Utah, has conversely excelled at the service line, posting an average of 1.5 aces per set. In fact, the Utes have had success in nearly everything they’ve done this season, as they enter with an 11-4 record and are 4-2 in the Pac-12.

Despite getting swept by No. 14 UCLA in its last game, Utah has won three of its last four contests, including an impressive win over No. 13 Oregon in four sets.

Playing against a solid ranked team such as the Utes, the blue and gold will need to figure out ways to close out close sets, something they have struggled to do so far in conference play.

“That’s something … that is always there to grab and that we just keep falling short,” Maeder said. “It’s just important for us as a team to keep practicing hard to keep improving every day in the gym and just knowing that the opportunities will get bigger and that we’re going to take it home.”

These efforts to finish close games on top may be aided by young players such as Maeder and fellow freshman Ellie Hamm, who are gaining experience with every match played. With the addition of battle-tested seniors Katie Smoot and Mima Mirkovic, Cal has the talent to win Pac-12 games. It’s just whether the Bears can finally put it all together.

“We just aren’t quite as clean as we would like to be in execution,” said head coach Sam Crosson. “We know we can do it, but there are a lot of variables right now. We need to figure out what is going to be the change for us to be able to make those things happen as opposed to mediocre or poor execution.”

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