The young but promising Cal Volleyball takes on Stanford twice this weekend

A status update of Cal Volleyball before this weekend's Big Spikes

I had zero expectations for Cal (Indoor) Volleyball this season. The dominant part of the NCAA-tourney-snubbed 2019 team that was the Cal middle blocking tandem is gone. Lauren Forte is now playing with the mask-free but top-10 Florida Gators while I have not seen any stats for Preslie Anderson at Baylor yet; both student-athletes got their Cal degrees this past fall and graduate transferred. The mainstay of Cal Volleyball for the past 3 years, the all-rotation outside hitter Mima Mirkovic has opted out to focus on Beach Volleyball this semester. Ditto for Katie Smoot, another outside hitter who is an experienced transfer from Arizona, who will debut first on the beach before indoor this fall. Factor in the 2019 senior class, Cal Volleyball has merely returned 6% (93 of 1522) of the kills, 16% (38 of 237) of the blocks, and 35% (583 of 1678) of the digs from the team that went 20-10.

With that said, my low expectation for the 2021 winter Cal Volleyball has been exceeded through the first 3 weekends of Pac-12 action. Sure, the Cal Bears have not won any matches yet in 6 tries, but they also have drawn a very tough conference opening schedule against a top-25 UCLA, a top-10 Utah, and a nearly top-25 Colorado. Cal Bears winning 4 sets (1 over UCLA, 1 over Utah, 2 over Colorado) against those opponents mean that they are kind of competitive against some of the best teams in the country (and have 4 more set wins than what I was expecting). I am even entertaining the fantasy of them upsetting an over-ranked No.15 Stanford once this weekend.

A random personal factoid, the last collegiate sporting event that I got to attend in person was seeing the Stanford Cardinal winning the 2019 NCAA Championship here in Pittsburgh, PA. The core class that won 3 of the last 4 NCAA titles for Stanford had graduated following that triumph. The 2021 Stanford Cardinal team that will face the Bears this weekend is kind of a question mark; it does not help them that they had additional setbacks due to a Santa Clara County forced late start (their first two weekends were canceled). They certainly did not look good in the two losses at unranked Arizona last weekend. Stanford’s lineup is essentially as unrecognizable from 1.5 years ago as the Cal lineup this year.

One clear edge that the Bears will have over the Cardinal is the experience at the setter position. Cal senior captain Isabel Potter is back to quarterback the Cal offense; the commentators on the UCLA and Colorado streams have said repeatedly just how much Cal head coach Sam Crosson is praising Potter for her leadership, particularly with the weirdness of this season. Stanford sophomore setter Selina Xu only got a few sets of experience playing behind Jenna Gray last year.

The Bears are running the “6-2” offense again this year. This means that Cal does give playtime each set to two different setters. Freshman Kendall Jensen has surpassed junior Jade Blevins as the second setter to play about 1/3 of the rotation. It was perhaps telling that Jensen played the bulk of the decisive 5th set against Colorado last weekend. Potter does have 60+% of the team’s assists, but Jensen has shown flashes of brilliance (as well as some inconsistent mistakes) that she might even push Potter (who has unfortunately also been a bit inconsistent in her Cal career) as the starting setter before this winter season is over.

The clear bright spots for the Cal Bears are the plays of the freshmen. Middle blocker Lydia Grote is the most efficient Cal attacker with a hitting percentage of 0.362 and 47 kills to go with 12 blocks. Temporarily keeping that all-rotation outside hitter’s role warm for Mima Mirkovic is Katarina Pantovic. Pantovic doesn’t yet have Mirkovic’s defensive prowess (1.95 digs/set for Pantovic compares to 2.92 digs/set for Mirkovic in 2019), but the freshman from British Columbia has a team-high 51 kills at a respectable but not great 0.160 rate. Not too surprisingly, when Pantovic is hitting well, Cal has a much greater chance of winning that set. Another contributing freshman is Sam Taumoepeau with 32 kills as the opposite, but her hitting percentage of only 0.082 needs improvement. Defensively, freshman Lexi Gruszczynski is providing a team-high 2.77 digs/set.

It would appear to me that collegiate women’s volleyball has evolved in the past decades that a team no longer can just rely on one volume outside hitter (with sometimes questionable defensive ability) as Cal had done with Mia Jerkov, Hana Cutara, and Tarah Murray who each averaged around 6 kills/set. Even Stanford in the past few years with their great teams, star Kathryn Plummer doesn’t have the kill stats to match Logan Tom or Ogonna Nnamani from the 2000’s. The top outside hitter in the games today only post about 3+ kills/set with a hitting percentage at 0.300. Modern volleyball, possibly due to some rule change that was too subtle for me to notice, seems to require more reliable hitters on a team to have success.

This group of freshmen is the first one at Cal for head coach Sam Crosson. It is a good omen for the type of talent that he might be able to consistently bring to Berkeley. Crosson was tapped as the coach to return the program to those peak of back-to-back Final Fours a decade ago when he was a Cal assistant coach under Rich Feller.

Bella Bergmark is playing her first season for Crosson since she took the 2019 season off to train with the USA national team program. The middle blocker does lead the team with 14 blocks but her hitting percentage of just 0.198 could be improved upon (middle blockers should have higher hitting percentages than outside hitters). Getting plenty of runs but not consistent enough so far is junior outside hitter Makana Meyer (the top returning hitter) who does have 31 kills but 32 errors for a just negative hitting percentage. If Meyer can find her killer instinct consistently (I think she is about 50/50 on those kill attempts across the court), then this Cal team will start to win matches. Sophomore opposite Sydney Lilomaiava (37 kills at 0.138) and libero Gabby Bellizzi (1.80 digs/set) are the other key rotation players on the squad.

Like a lot of young teams, consistency is a major issue. You do see the Bears make some brilliant plays for a point only to negate that immediately with a bad pass/set/hit. Focusing on those set wins, the Bears did show plenty of resolve in winning an extended 39-37 set over UCLA, a 25-23 set over Utah, and a 26-24 set over Colorado. These Bears can handle the pressure if/when they can keep a set close. Bears have also not been competitive at all in the second matches of the weekends against the same opponents. I am not sure how much of that might be due to early-season conditioning. Another possibility is the recognition by their opponents on how porous the Cal defense is at the net; Cal has been out blocked by their opponents 54 to 28 on the year thus far.

In the small sample size of two matches, Stanford is only hitting 0.124 as a team. Sophomore Kendall Kipp is hitting just 0.165 as their top outside hitter. Cal Bears, despite the tough opponents and the losses, are actually hitting slightly better at 0.143 on the year. Again, I would not be completely shocked should this Cal team beat the overrated No.15 Stanford once in two tries.

Due to the extended lack of training and no weak non-conference schedule as tune-ups, there have been plenty of mistakes made by not just the Bears but also their opponents on the year. Cal having the two extra weeks of games might give them a huge edge over Stanford this weekend. As long as you keep your expectations in check, this is a fun team to watch so far. The Golden Bears are looking for their first Big Spike win since 2011 (a reminder to myself again to keep my expectation low). Should that elusive first win not come this weekend, the Bears will take on the receiving-votes (but I’m not exactly sure why) USC Trojans (1-3) next weekend.

Big Spike: Cal Volleyball (0-6) vs. No.15 Stanford (0-2)

Times: Friday, Feb 12th at 2 pm in Berkeley; Sunday, Feb 14th at 5 pm in Stanford

TV: Pac-12 Networks for both matches