Season previews of Cal Volleyball, Men's Water Polo, Track & Field who all start this weekend

Both Cal Men's Tennis and Women's Tennis won their season openers over SMC earlier this week.

While the ongoing pandemic still poises a lot of questions on the viability of the current plans to play out the seasons, several Cal Olympic sports will begin their delayed 2020-21 season this week as the Spring Semester instruction gets underway (remotely) at Cal. We already have victories by both Cal Men’s and Women’s tennis earlier this week over the nearby Saint Mary’s.

In today’s post, I will preview the upcoming seasons for Tennis, Volleyball, Men’s Water Polo, and Track & Field.

Cal Men’s Tennis (1-0)

2019-20 results: 5-3 before the season was canceled

Roster changes: Categorized as a spring sport, tennis student-athletes were granted an additional year of eligibility by the NCAA, but all three Cal seniors last year including No.6 singles mainstay Bjorn Hoffmann have moved on.

Without any prior announcement or full season schedule release (yet), Cal Men’s Tennis notched their first win with a 5-2 victory over Saint Mary’s on Monday from Hellman Tennis Complex on campus. The senior-laden squad won the doubles point and 4 of the 6 singles matches.

The Cal Bears lineup used in the opener consisted of 5 seniors and 2 juniors. Senior Paul Barretto led the way as both the No.1 singles player (ranked No.63 in the country) and as half of the No.1 doubles pair (ranked No.36 in the country) with fellow senior Can Kaya. Junior Yuta Kikuchi (the highest-ranked singles player on the team at No.42 in the country) played at No.2 singles. Senior Ben Draper, Jacob Brumm, Can Kaya, and Thomas Wright played at singles No.3, 4, 5, and 6, respectively. The senior duo of Draper and Wright played as the No.2 doubles. The junior duo of Kikuchi and Kent Hunter played as the No.3 doubles. Senior Jack Molloy who played as the No.2 singles player for the Bears last year did not play in this meet but is still listed on the team roster.

Cal won the No.2 and No.3 doubles to get the doubles point. The Bears then swept the top 4 singles matches over the visiting Gaels.

2021 Outlook: The former No.1 recruiting class in the country has matured to be seniors this year. Cal received votes but did not crack the top-25 in the preseason ITA national rankings. They will also face tough competitions within the Pac-12 from No.1 USC, No.5 Stanford, and No.18 UCLA. Nonetheless, Peter Wright has traditionally done a great job developing his players that you could count on them by the time when they are upperclassmen to make a Sweet 16, if not better, run at the NCAA tournament as a team. With the extra year of eligibility granted last year for this group, there is a high probability of most of them coming back to fulfill that potential in 2022. Still, do not be shocked if the Bears get there this spring.

No.19 Cal Women’s Tennis (1-0)

2019-20 results: 3-4, 1-1 in Pac-12 play; ranked No.21 in the country when the season was canceled

Roster changes: Of the two seniors on the roster last year, Alexis Nelson is gone while Katerina Stloukalova is back as a graduate student. The bigger change for the squad is the addition of some impact freshmen, ranked the 3rd best class in the country, in Jada Bui, Hannah Viller Møller, and Cami Brown.

Head coach Amanda Augustus already played two of those freshmen in the season-opening win over the SMC Gaels on Thursday. Bears returned their top players from last year in now seniors Julia Rosenqvist and Anna Bright along with now sophomores Valentina Ivanov, Haley Giavara, and Erin Richardson. These sophomores got to play a lot as individuals early in their freshmen year (during the fall of 2019) before COVID cut short the season.

Basically the norm for the Cal Women’s Tennis program, the Cal squad is very international with Bui from Canada, Møller from Denmark, Rosenqvist from Sweden, Ivanov from Australia, and Richardson from England. It’s good to see that they are all able to be back in Berkeley.

Both Bui and Møller played in the opener at No.3 and No.4 singles, respectively. Giavara who played as the Cal No.1 singles player last year only played in doubles in this one. No.26 Ivanov and No.43 Rosenqvist (who also served as the Cal No.1 singles player earlier in her career) were the No.1 and No.2 for the Bears in this one. Bright and Richardson completed the singles lineup.

The only loss on the day for the Bears was at No.1 singles where Ivanov lost to SMC’s Mariia Kozyreva who is ranked No.17 in the country. We will have a much better knowledge of Augustus’ Cal lineup for this year by this Saturday match at UCLA.

2021 Outlook: A (nearly) complete schedule is up for the Cal Bears on the official website. Similar to a normal season, the Bears will kick off the spring semester with the ITA Weekend for a spot in the ITA Indoor Championship in February. The ITA Indoor Championship remains the only national title won by the program in its history in 2016. That is likely to be more of a crapshoot than usual this year given the variations in training for student-athletes across the country during the pandemic.

The 19th ranked Cal Bears will have a tough road as they have to visit No.2 UCLA on Saturday. Should the Bears get past the Bruins, Texas A&M or Washington State would be next. Within the Pac, both UCLA (at No.2) and Stanford (at No.4) are serious national title contenders. Without a normal fall for the freshmen and a full season last year for the now sophomores, it is hard to predict how the Bears will fare this year.

Golden Bears definitely have the talent to make a deep run at the NCAA Championships in May, and could even win it all. We shall find out soon how the youngsters play in the team environment, which is a different mentality than playing as an individual. In a normal college cycle, the Cal Bears in 2021 have the perfect mix of experience and youth. Like I said before for men’s tennis, the seniors may opt to come back in 2022 (with the extra eligibility from last year) to give the program two good shots at that elusive first NCAA team national championship.

Cal Volleyball - newbies to gain valuable experiences

2019 results: 20-10, 10-10 in Pac-12 play; snubbed of an NCAA tournament berth

Roster changes: Outside hitter Maddie Haynes, outside hitter Bailee Huizinga, and libero Emma Smith have graduated, but the Bears also lost middle hitters Preslie Anderson and Lauren Forte to graduate transfers to Baylor and Florida, respectively. The inspirational Savannah Rennie has also moved on to Marquette as a graduate transfer.

Only officially announced earlier this week, Cal superstar outside hitter Mima Mirkovic has decided to push back her senior year of indoor volleyball eligibility from this spring to the upcoming fall. Another outside hitter in Arizona transfer Katie Smoot has opted to do the same. Both of them will focus on the beach volleyball season this spring where the Cal Beach Volleyball program has a much better shot at a national title as a likely top-10 ranked team. They will also be playing in a more COVID-safe environment of being outdoor while waiting for a hopefully normal fall indoor season. I totally understand these decisions, even if it significantly stifle my enthusiasm for the season that will start in a few hours.

In his 2nd year at the helm of the program, Sam Crosson has brought in his first class of freshmen who are expected to play a major role in the Bears 2021 success. Outside hitter Katarina Pantovic should be getting some swings and middle blocker Lydia Grotte fill a need down the middle. Opposite Sam Taumoepeau should also be getting some early floor time because the Bears have plenty of holes (or rather opportunities) in their rotation.

Players who are back include the setting tandem of senior Isabel Potter and junior Jade Blevins. Cal played some 6-2 in the past to allow both setters to play in a typical set, with Potter getting the larger share of the floor time. A freshman setter in Kendall Jensen may also be in the mix. Bears will also have some experienced back row players returning in Gabby Bellizzi (163 digs last year, 5th best on the team) and Jessica Houghton (37 digs last year).

The top hitter back is middle blocker Bella Bergmark, who sat out the 2019 season but had 36 kills and 21 blocks in 2018. Her attempt to make the USA national team in 2020 and the voluminous opportunity should easily allow Bergmark to eclipse those marks. The top returner in kills from 2019 for the Bears is Makana Meyer who had 53 kills in a part-time role (good for 7th). The only other returnee with double-digit kills in 2019 was setter Potter with 30.

2021 Spring outlook: Even without that NCAA tournament berth, Cal Volleyball had a great rebound season in 2019. Unfortunately, all that momentum is lost due to COVID with key players moving on early with their lives. Sam Crosson has a tough task in navigating this young and inexperienced Cal squad through the treacherous Pac-12 only 22-match schedule in 2021.

Instead of the normal two matches against the two different Pac-12 schools in the same region, the new schedule will see the Bears play the same opponent on back-to-back matches to minimize potential COVID spread.

The Pac-12 will again be quite tough despite Stanford graduating their superclass that won 3 of the past 4 NCAA championships. The Cardinal merely dropped to No.3 in the preseason poll. Washington checks in at No.8 while Utah sits at No.10. Cal’s opening weekend opponents in UCLA are ranked at No.22.

Expect a ton of growing pains as the Bears find its rotation and go-to players. In the best-case scenario, this highly regarded freshmen class gain a ton of valuable experiences this spring before welcoming Mima Mirkovic back in the fall to be a national title contender. It’s an extremely tough situation for this team, and we shall be happy with the team improving its competitiveness over the course of the season even if they don’t necessarily result in winning matches (or even sets).

No.5 Cal Men’s Water Polo - tough matches only in 2021 schedule

2019 results: 14-11, 0-3 in conference play; lost to eventual NCAA champ Stanford in MPSF championship final

Roster changes: Bears lost two key seniors in Safak Simsek (team-best 52 goals) and Jordan Hoover (his 43 goals were the 3rd best last season), but gained a bunch of freshmen including Jordan’s younger twin brothers in Brady and Blake. The highest regarded freshmen are center George Avakian, attackers Tommy Kennedy and Alika Naone, and keeper Will Kieckhafer.

The key returnees for the Bears are Greek sophomore center Nikolaos Papanikolaou who scored 51 goals for the Bears last year and a fellow sophomore in goalkeeper Adrian Weinberg. Nikolaos Papanikolaou has the potential to be a Peter Cutino trophy (water polo’s Heisman) winner at some point. Both guys earned All-American honorable mention for their 2019 campaigns. Greek senior and All-MPSF honorable mention 2-meter Nikos Delgrammatikas is also back and will be the team captain.

2021 Outlook: Historically, the 4 top collegiate men’s water polo teams in the country have consistently been Cal (14 NCAA titles, most by any school), UCLA (11 titles), Stanford (11 titles), and USC (10 titles). This postponed 2021 season will see the 4 schools beat up on one another over 3 regular-season weekends before the MPSF Championship at UCLA on March 5-7 and the NCAA Championship (where only 3 of the 4 schools can earn a berth) at Stanford on March 18-21.

In the preseason poll, USC is ranked No.1, Stanford at No.2, and UCLA at No.3. Stanford, who won the title last year has lost two-time Pete Cutino prize winner Ben Hallock and his 70+ goals to national team duties even though he still had an extra year of eligibility as a redshirt senior. Nonetheless, all three teams returned a number of former All-American players for this delayed season.

Playing only these foes only during the regular season, Cal may have a very bad looking record. Still, you can only forge steel with fire. Golden Bears are coming off two uncharacteristic seasons where they managed to lose to teams not named USC/UCLA/Stanford. What was promising, however, was the Bears beating then No.1 USC in the must-win MPSF championship semifinal. Barring some last-minute schedule change, the Bears won’t face the improving UCSB or Pepperdine program until possibly the NCAA tournament. With the young core of this team being underclassmen, these consistent tough tests should be great training for this upcoming fall, but it might be unrealistic to expect that the Bears have already closed that gap between themselves and the other top teams.

Cal Track and Field - indoor season starts today

Bears will start their indoor season today from the Air Force Academy in Colorado. The most notable returnee for the Bears is Camryn Rogers, a 2019 national champion in hammer throw who had planned to sit out last year to concentrate on making the Canadian Olympic team. Rogers will compete in all the throwing competitions, not just the hammer.

On the men’s side Hakim McMorris, brother of Malik is the multiple discipline athlete to watch out for. He finished 2nd in heptathlon in the conference championship last year and will be competing in long jump and high jump.

In 2020, the season was canceled after the completion of the MPSF championship but before the NCAA Indoor Track and Field championship.

Bears took 1-2 in men’s shotput last year but McKay Johnson has graduated. Joshua Johnson, who took 2nd, is still listed on the Cal roster this year. Bears also have a notable transfer in Henry Larkin who is a 2x Big East champ who transferred from DePaul and will race in 200-meter and 400-meter.

On the women’s side Canadian freshmen Busola Akinduro is a notable triple jumper who looked strong in training, according to Cal Bears dot com.

Coming up next week, I will recap the results from this weekend and preview some of the other Cal sports that may be playing soon. We already know that the always fun Cal Women’s Gymnastics will open their season next weekend.

We should also know more about the other rescheduled fall sports in soccer (both the men and the women had a senior drafted by the MLS and NWSL, respectively, but both might still play for the Bears in the delayed seasons before turning pro) and field hockey (coming off the tragic loss of a teammate this past fall in the passing of Zoe Rogers, deemed by the police as a suicide).

We will also monitor the news concerning the delayed 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics which may or may not take place this summer. One might speculate how an Olympic games cancelation could alter the decisions to hold certain collegiate Olympic sports this winter/spring.