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Big Spike: Cal Volleyball opens Pac-12 vs. Stanford after uneven pre-conference play

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Bears will play the home leg of their rivalry matches against Stanford to open Pac-12 play tonight. Match is on the Pac-12 Networks.

Bears will open Pac-12 play against Stanford tonight.
Bears will open Pac-12 play against Stanford tonight.
Cal Volleyball Facebook

Big Spike: California Golden Bears (6-5) vs. No.8 Stanford Cardinal (6-2)

When: 7 pm PT

TV: Pac-12 Bay Area

Bears enter the 2015 Pac-12 play with a 6-5 record after a schedule that was designed to give maximum experiences to a young squad. Given how the Pac-12 remains (arguably) the best and by far the deepest volleyball conference in the country (and 7 of the 12 teams are currently ranked in the top 25 after a league high 10 teams made the NCAA tournament last year), the Golden Bears really need to up their game to make a run at a return to the NCAA postseason.

Bears have found a replacement for the graduated Christina Higgins in freshman Carmen Annevelink as the starting Opposite. She average a team second best 2.56 kill per set (yeah, that number is kind of low...but that a huge part of this team's struggle).

With a solid back line lead by junior team captain Maddy Kerr, the Bears' main problem has been on offense. Rather than having that one go-to outside hitter that can take 60% of the swings if necessarily, the Bears' committee of Nikki Gombar, Christina Alftin, and Belen Castillo lack that killer instinct and often are barely hitting above 0.100. While the strong middle blocking duo of Lillian Schonewise and Lara Vukasovic (not to mention Jenelle Jordan) are keeping the Bears in many matches, the team is also so good without that reliable outside hitting. The Cal offense is run by junior Alyssa Jensen, who is sitting at 8th on the program's all-time assist list.

Bears have played in 3 tournaments so far this year - winning 2 out of 3 at Cal Molten and Service Academy Classics. Bears won 1 of 3 at the Kansas State Tournament before splitting two matches at home this past weekend - sweeping St. Mary's in 3 but being swept by Pacific in 3.

Today's match is the Bears' 3rd one in 5 days.

For Stanford, the preseason pick to win the Pac-12, they are playing without former National Player of the Year in middle blocker Inky Ajanaku, who sustained a knee injury playing with the U.S. National Team this summer. Of course, the Stanford squad does not lack talent.

Hayley Hodson leads Stanford with 92 kills (3.41 kills per game). She is followed by Brittany Howard at 3.15 kills per game. The super tall (6'8") Merete Lutz is averaging just under 3 kills per game (2.95). The Furd offense is run through setter Madi Bugg.

Stanford has lost to top ranked Penn State and also North Carolina this year.

While the Bears are huge underdog for this match, you can never rule out an inspired performance from the Bears in a rivalry match. Even in the past two Stanford wins at Haas (which is newly renovated if you haven't gone to check it out), you can see how much less fun the Stanford players have on the court than our Golden Bears. Not saying that the Cardinal will crack under pressure but that's always a possibility.

Besides, Maddy Kerr is soooo positive about the Bears' recent play in her weekly blog on CalBears.com:

Last weekend was full of positives. Even though we lost a close one to Air Force, we are playing SO much better as a whole. The vibes on the court are better, and we have had some people really step it up! I know I can rely on my girls to do whatever it takes to win, and that is the most important thing. So, we are stoked to play again and see what we can do!

GO BEARS!