The Bears are looking to dust off the few dents in their armor that No. 4 Stanford left Tuesday as Cal suffered its first loss of the season on the Pac-12 home opener. This Sunday, the Bears will have an opportunity to even their conference record in Salt Lake City against the Utah Utes.
Although Cal only just experienced its first loss of the season thus far, now sporting an 11-1 record, this newfound sense of defeat has likely inspired a thirst to redeem themselves by following it up with a win.
The path to victory in the Pac-12 will not be an easy one, however, as the Utes sit at a .500 record on the year after victories over Weber State, San Francisco, Tennessee State, UNLV and North Carolina State. Defensively, they are putting up a solid front, with their senior libero Vanessa Ramirez ranking third in the Pac-12 with 151 total digs and an average of 4.08 digs per set.
The Bears will be able to compete with the challenge the Utes will undoubtedly cause as Cal’s senior libero Tara DeSa leads the Pac-12 with 4.69 digs per set and 183 total digs. Her anchorage of the Bears’ defense has been a major factor in Cal’s elite ability to limit its opponent-hitting percentage to an average of .122, which puts them at one of the top spots in the nation.
“I think as a team we’ve been improving drastically with every game, it’s just been hard for us because we’ve been playing with a mindset of we’re timid and scared because that’s what we’re used to,” DeSa said. “So we’ve been trying to shift to a mindset to tell ourselves to be aggressive, to be confident, because we’re capable of beating these teams.”
In the past, the Bears lost last year to the Utes and thus hold a 10-18 all-time record against them — but this year has been different for Cal volleyball to this point.
The Bears have gained a new roster of fresh-faced players and coaches who are looking to the future and beyond. New Cal head coach Chrissy Jones Schoonderwoerd has evidently been doing something right, as she powered the Bears to an 11-0 record in non-conference play. Meanwhile, the youngest Bears on the squad have been breaking some of the oldest records — case in point, freshman outside hitter Maggie Li.
Ranking third in the Pac-12 and 30th in the nation with 4.15 kills per set, earning Pac-12 Freshman of the Week for three consecutive weeks and recording multiple All-Tournament Team nods, Li has been a shimmering revelation for Cal after a rather lackluster 2022 season.
After leading the game against Stanford with 10 kills and nine digs, it is likely that Li will help the Bears’ effort to dominate Utah at the net and in the back row. Other key figures for Cal will be junior setter Annalea Maeder, who ranks fourth in the Pac-12 and top 20 in the country with 10.73 assists per set, just posting a double-double against Stanford with 20 assists and 14 digs.
Senior outside hitter Sam Taumoepeau, sophomore middle blocker Mikayla Hayden, junior middle blocker Ellie Hamm and redshirt sophomore opposite Ava Mehrten will also aid in the Cal’s offense and defense against the Utes after leading the team against Stanford in kills and blocks.
Utah will be coming into Sunday’s match hot regardless as the team has won three of its last four Pac-12 home openers while recording a season-high of 24 digs in a recent victory against Weber State.
Utes’ players that the Bears will need to watch out for include graduate student Rianne Vos, whose versatility as a defensive specialist and outside hitter is evident. She recorded double-doubles last week, hit .300 or better in both games against BYU and Weber State and even led the team in digs.
Similarly, Utah’s starting senior middle blocker, Allie Olsen, will likely stir things up at the net as she has hit above .500 in half the matches.
Plus, the Utes also possess a freshman weapon in outside hitter Kamryn Gibadlo, who’s led the team in half the matches this season with kills. Her average of 2.48 kills per set ranks second amongst Pac-12 freshmen.
Sophomore setter Viktoria Wahlgren will likely be utilizing these hitters around her while engaging in her own setting prowess. She leads the team in aces while averaging 9.78 assists per set, earning her start in every match of the season.
However, Cal still leads the Pac-12 in assists per set, kills per set and opponent hitting percentage. If the Bears can continue to execute their all-around strengths on the court and avoid the lapses in confidence that cost them the game against Stanford, it should make for an exciting second conference match of the year.