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Cal Fall Olympic Sports Preview: How far can volleyball and men's soccer advance in the NCAA tournaments in 2014?

This is part 1 of 2 previews of the Cal Fall Olympic Sports, covering Cal Volleyball and Men's Soccer. Check back next week for my take on Cal Women's Soccer, Men's Water Polo, and Field Hockey.

Unlike certain team in the South Bay, the Golden Bears know how to have fun on the court (seriously, check the tape from last year, Furd volleyball does not know how to smile).
Unlike certain team in the South Bay, the Golden Bears know how to have fun on the court (seriously, check the tape from last year, Furd volleyball does not know how to smile).
Cal Volleyball Twitter

With the start of the fall Cal season merely one week away (Cal Women's Soccer kicks things off when they host University of San Francisco in Edwards Stadium next Friday at 5 pm - a game that is on the Pac-12 Networks), it is time for me to make some bold predictions for the season. For each of the sports, I will start with a quick recap of what happened last season and what a more realistic expectations are. I will close with a bold prediction for each team.

Cal Volleyball

Regular readers know that Cal Volleyball is one of the sports that I follow very closely (probably my second favorite in a tie with Football behind Men's Basketball). With plenty of games again available via the Pac-12 Networks (or free online stream), I will again attempt to give some insightful weekly update (but no film breakdown though) on the progress of the team. Coincidentally, the Cal Volleyball open scrimmage schedule for next Saturday (August 23rd after the Golden Bear Day fanfest up by Memorial Stadium) coincides with my expected first time back on campus since 2010. I will try to do my best Nam imitation and report back on what I see there.

2013 Season:

18-13, 10-10 in the Pac-12 - eliminated in the NCAA 2nd round by host Wisconsin

Departing players:

Outside HItter Adrienne Gehan and Setter Joan Caloiaro to graduation, OH Michelle Neumayr (a starter last year after suffering season ending injuries prior to the start of the season in the two seasons prior) and OH/S Lindsey Parrott to retirement from college volleyball

Impact newcomers:

With the No.9 recruiting class in the country, Bears will likely feature several freshmen this season.

Freshman Ashten Smith-Gooden (6'2" OH) is the 5th best volleyball recruit in the country and the most heralded Cal recruit since Tarah Murray. She is most probably going to be in the rotation at some point this season. Patience may be the key here since Tarah Murray did not become the consistent force that she was until the US National Team tryout before her junior year.

Fellow freshman Laura Leap (6'5" Middle Blocker) has enrolled with the Bears since the start of the year. She is another top 100 recruit (#93) and has joined the Bears on Cal's European tour this summer.

2014 preseason ranking:

Chance to win the NCAA title:

Very small. The seniors on this team may remembered when they were ranked No.1 in the country during their freshman year, but this is probably a slight rebuilding year for the Bears.

Chance to win the Pac:

With the Pac being a perennial top volleyball conference in the country ('Furd, Washington, and USC are all in the top 5 for the preseason poll), winning the Pac is a comparable task to winning the NCAA title. For what its worth, the Golden Bears are picked to finish in a tie for 5th in the preseason poll.

Chance to beat Stanfurd and when:

2013 meetings: a pair of 3-1 losses to 'Furd

2014 meetings: Tuesday September 23 at 'Furd and Friday November 28 in Berkeley (regular season finale)

'Furd is ranked 3rd in the country in the first poll of the year. Given the youth on the Bears, particularly at setter (more on this later), I don't like the Bears' chance all that much for the Pac-12 opening first match. On the final match of the season, however, I would give the Bears a puncher's chance to pull off a huge upset right before the NCAA tournament.

Key player:

Sophomore setter Alyssa Jensen's performance this season will determine how far the Bears go. The setter is basically the QB for the team, with only a very few brief appearance last season, Jensen will be relied on quite a bit to run the offense with the graduation of former transfer Joan Caloiaro. Fortunately for Jensen and the Bears, she did get plenty of experiences this past summer during the Golden Bears's European trip at the beginning of the summer to play against national and pro teams in Europe. For whatever reason, likely due to low total, she was not featured in the recaps of those games. Possibly pushing Jensen is freshman setter Sammy Furlan.

One thing to note here is that this is the first season where many members on the team are coming off a spring of Sand Volleyball experiences. While indoor volleyball involves a lot more specialization, sand volleyball requires a player to be better all-around. It will be interesting to see how much (if any) the passing of the Bears have improved due to that.

Not so bold predictions:

The Golden Bears will make a return to the NCAA tournament, extending the school record streak of consecutive NCAA berth to 13, where they may or may not get to play North Carolina for the 5th straight year.

Junior OH/MB Lara Vukasovic will challenge senior Opposite Christina Higgins for the team lead in kills. Also in the mix will be middle blocker Lillian Schonewise, who got to travel to China with the Pac-12 touring team after returning to the US from Europe with the Cal Volleyball team.

Bold Prediction:

With 3 of the 7 starters gone from the team, the Bears may struggle a bit early (which means losing a set here or there against competitions that they should easily sweep - Golden Bears are not really challenging themselves with NCAA title contenders in the outside conference schedule) but when it is all said and done, Cal will be a top 3 team in the Pac-12. Remember when I said that 3 Pac-12 teams are picked in the top 5 at the first poll of the year? I think one of them will falter to allow the Bears to sneak up to that 3rd spot with a top 15 team in the country after the talented freshmen will have lived up to the hype.

More on Cal Volleyball:

Head coach Rich Feller has a Q&A on CalBears.com's Coaches Corner:

CB: You have 19 players on this year’s team, your biggest ever. How is training camp going so far?

RF: We’ve talked a lot about the management of such a big roster. It’s been interesting, but the captains and the coaching staff talked the other day about the luxury we feel of having enough subs to do what we want to do. If someone is slightly hurt or someone has to leave for a class, we’ve got a luxury of having other people so the level of practice doesn’t go down. We’ve been able to maintain a high level of practice. That luxury has made this camp pretty special so far, pretty unique. I’m enjoying it and I think the team is enjoying it.

Two seasons ago, the Bears were at one stretch so hurt that they could not field enough bodies to have competitive practices. This should not be a problem this year.

Cal Men's Soccer

2013 was a special, special storybook year for the Golden Bears on the pitch with the team fall just short of a berth in the College Cup (NCAA soccer's Final Four). While a step back is very much expected with the amount of talent that is now on MLS roster (lost mostly due to graduation rather than early defection), the Bears will be out to prove that last year is not a fluke and the Golden Bears are here to stay as perennial national title contenders in men's soccer.

2013 Season:

14-5-2, 6-3-1 in the MPSF - lost 2-1 to Maryland in the Elite Eight, No.1 ranked team in the country for 7 weeks

Departing players:

Team MVP and defender Steve Birnbaum has since graduated (2nd overall pick in the MLS Superdraft to DC United), along with Ryan Neil (18th overall pick to Real Salt Lake) and Alec Sundly (2nd round pick to New England Revolution). Christian Dean forwent his last year of eligibility to sign a Generation Adias contract with the MLS (3rd overall pick to Vancouver Whitecaps).



Impact newcomers:

Joshua Morton, a 6'2" freshman defender was a star for the Bears in the very first training camp, scoring 12 times in 4 2v2 game to garner a mention in the only CalBears.com training camp report.

Also got a mention is transfer Trevor Haberkorn.

Among the several new faces in Berkeley this year is sophomore defender Trevor Haberkorn. The former Furman Paladin appeared in all 18 games last year as a true freshman at center back and garnered honors as a member of the 2013 Top Drawer Soccer Freshman Best XI, was named second team All-Southern Conference and also was a member of the Southern Conference All-Freshman team. His first official practice as a Golden Bear did not disappoint.

"It was awesome, very intense and it was great to finally get a practice with the coaches and the group. Everyone was really excited being out here and really getting a real session in. It’s only going to get better as we continue, which I really look forward to and I consider myself very lucky to have this opportunity. We are always together as a team, and there is already great camaraderie and you couldn’t ask for a better squad to go day-to-day with to work hard and hopefully do just as well or better than we did last year."

All in all, the Bears have a very good recruiting class that may find themselves playing plenty of important minutes.

2014 preseason ranking:

Golden Bears are ranked 7th in the preseason.

Chance to win the NCAA title:

Small. Bears should be a top 20 team all year long, but would need to find some new leaders on the team both in performance and in the locker room to get as close as last year or even closer.

Chance to win the MPSF Pac-12:

UCLA and Washington are ranked 4th and 6th, respectively, in the preseason poll. This may also be the time to mention that despite being ranked No.1 in the country for bulk of the season, the Bears did not win the conference last year after a couple late setbacks to UCLA (in Berkeley after a tough road win at Westwood), Washington (at Seattle), and most painfully Stanfurd on the road. With 3 teams (including Cal) expected to be very good again, I think winning the conference may be tougher than winning the NCAA championship.

Chance to beat Stanfurd and when:

Steve Birnbaum converted a penalty to give the Bears a 1-0 win over Furd in Berkeley. Bears did suffer an OT lose to close out the regular season, however, to Furd last year when the Furd were desperate for a win to cement their NCAA tournament chances (they did make the field).

In 2014, the Bay Area Derby will be played on Monday, October 20th (at Furd) and Sunday, November 16 (in Berkeley as the regular season finale).

Key players:

Senior striker Stefano Bonomo is the leading returner in goals for the Bears with 6, he was a distant 3rd on the team behind Birnbaum (10) and Sundly (9). Can Bonomo increase his offensive output for the Bears this year to compensate to those lost to graduation?

Not so bold prediction:

Whoever plays goalie for the Bears will be quite good again. Last year, Justin Taillole was the starter for the bulk of the season before redshirt freshman Alex Mangels took over the job late in the season and through the postseason run. Both of them have performed well for the Golden Bears. With the number of MLS goalkeepers that have come from Cal, producing solid goalies have been a consistent strength for the program.

Bold Prediction:

Bears will sweep the season series from those Stanfurd Cardinal. I would just really love for this to happen, and this is my column after all.

GO BEARS!