The Golden Bears have a lot of work to do still. Against the 4th ranked and defending NCAA champs that is unfortunately rival Stanford, the Bears put up a fight in the first set but ultimately succumb to Stanford in three sets, falling 20-25, 14-25, 15-25.
Final stats: Mirkovic 9 kills; Annevelink 6 kills; Anderson 5 kills; Alftin 7 digs. #CalVolleyball— Cal Volleyball (@CalVolleyball) September 21, 2017
Bear are now 9-3 on the year with an 0-1 Pac-12 record.
Bears will next play at Utah on Sunday at 1 PM PT. That match will again be on the Pac-12 Networks.
The 2017 Big Spike will have a new feel to it and it is not because of the Bears’ new Under Armour uniforms. Long time head coaches Rich Feller (for Cal) and John Dunning (for Stanford) have both decided to retire. In comes new head coaches Matt McShane (former Cal Associate head coach and previous Air Force head coach) for the Golden Bears and Kevin Hambly (former Illinois head coach) for the Cardinal.
With non-conference matches behind us, let’s take a look at the 2017 Golden Bears and eventually, the defending NCAA champs in Stanford.
With a 9-2 non-conference record, the Cal Bears are fairly content with their performance to date. The Bears dropped the 2nd match of the season to UC Irvine and the latest 5 set heartbreaker to Pacific. Of course, the goal for the Bears would be a return trip to the NCAA postseason. To get there, the Bears need to have at least a .500 record. With 20 matches in Pac-12 play (Bears only play Colorado and Utah once), the Bears would need to go 7-13 in Pac-12 to finish with a 16-15 record; given the strength of the Pac, that record would most likely be good enough to get the Bears back to the NCAA tournament. To achieve 7-13 would require the Bears to pull off some periodic upset victories.
Head coach Matt McShane has found his starting lineup which was this last weekend:
Bears start senior Christina Alftin (outside hitter), freshman Mima Mirkovic (outside hitter), freshman Preslie Anderson (middle blocker) - who has taken over the starter role over senior Caihla Petiprin just this past weekend, senior Antzela Dempi (opposite), junior Mackenzie Albrecht (setter), junior Carmen Annevelink (outside hitter), and senior Jessica Gaffney (libero).
Unlike the last decade under Rich Feller, the Bears actually relies fairly heavily on a 2nd setter in freshman Isabel Potter. For certain rotations, Potter would come in to play for Albrecht. This is different (I think) from teams running the 6-2 offensive system where there are always 2 setters on the court. Albrecht, the junior who filled in some for Alyssa Jansen last year, has a small edge in assists per set (as the starter, she probably has more opportunities per set) with 6.38 over Potter who has 5.02.
Other Bears in the rotation would be another middle blocker in Petiprin (used to be Anderson before she entered the starting lineup) and another outside hitter in sophomore Maddie Haynes. Former top recruit outside hitter Ashten Smith-Gooden has only had some cameos (4 sets played in 3 matches) in the first 3rd of the season.
Using a relatively short rotation, McShane has so far avoided the Bears’ pitfall in the last few years. Despite having great individual athletes like Maddy Kerr, Janelle Jordan, etc., the Bears in the last few years have had a hole in their rotation where they would periodic lose 3-4 points before a sideout. Such a black hole does not appear to be there for the Cal Bears in 2017.
The two setters spread the ball around to give Cal 4 players with at least 2 kills per set. They are Dempi (3.02 k/s), Mirkovic (2.81 k/s), Annevelink (2.76 k/s), and Alftin (2.36 k/s). Dempi, who shown glimpse of her potential in the last few years, has taken a huge leap in consistency thus far in her senior year. In the middle, Petiprin and Anderson have contributed 1.0 and 0.71 blocks per set, respectively. In the backrow, Gaffney leads the way with 3.93 digs per set. She’s joined as a leader of that category with Mirkovic (3.38 d/s) and Alftin (2.48 d/s). While Alftin has always had an all-around game, the emergence of a 2nd outside hitter who can play every rotation like Mirkovic was huge for the Bears. Mirkovic has already won conference freshman of the week honor this year.
By having three standout freshmen contributing greatly in Potter, Mirkovic, and Anderson, the future looks bright for the Cal Bears to return to the peak of the Feller era: consecutive NCAA berths and deep runs in the tournament. The Cal Volleyball program is still seeking its first NCAA national championship after coming so close in 2010 to finish as the runner-up.
A 7-13 run through the Pac is achievable if the Bears can be in the middle third of the Pac. Of course, the Pac-12 conference is the best in college volleyball and recently years have seen as many as 10 schools making the postseason. Bears have not fared that well in Pac-12 play in recent years (3 wins in 2016, 2 in 2014 and 2015). The 2013 squad went 10-10 in Pac-12 play en route to an 17-12 regular season record to be the last Cal team to make the NCAA tourney.
7 current Pac-12 schools are ranked: Stanford, Washington, Oregon, UCLA, Utah, USC, Colorado with Washington State also receiving votes. The Pac-12 conference play is a gauntlet and that gauntlet starts tonight against the Bay Area rival for our sturdy Golden Bears. Bears will then travel to Utah on Sunday for an 1 pm PT match that is also on the Pac-12 Networks.
The defending NCAA champs, Stanford (7-2), has already suffered two losses (both to an elite Penn State squad) but they remain one of the best in the country thanks to that phenomenal freshman class from last year, primarily national freshman of the year outside hitter Kathryn Plummer, setter Jenna Gray, and middle blocker Audriana Fitzmorris.
Stanford clearly has ambition to repeat as NCAA champs and win the always very tough Pac-12 conference. Head coach Kevin Hambly is saying that they are just focusing on their next game, Cal, at the moment though.
This is the expected Stanford lineup:
Setter: Jenna Gray, Outside Hitter: Kathryn Plummer, Outside Hitter: Meghan McClure (a freshman), Middle Blocker: Tami Alade (junior), Middle Blocker: Audriana Fitzmorris, Opposte: Merete Lutz (redshirt senior), Libero: Morgan Hentz (another sophomore).
Gray quarterbacks the Stanford offense with 11.37 sets per game. Plummer already has an insane 148 kills or 4.93 kills per set (remember that Stanford has been sweeping their opponents in straight sets). The freakishly tall (6’8”) Lutz adds 2.79 kills per set after sitting out a few matches early. Fitzmorris and Alade both averages more than 1 blocks per set (1.5 and 1.4, respectively) each. Hentz leads the way with 3.43 digs per set but I imagine she doesn’t have that many chances since Stanford can quickly end points once they get control of the ball.
It will no doubt be a very tough match for the Golden Bears against a top team in a hostile environment (Stanford is bribing people to show up by offering free pepperoni pizzas...take off those red pepperonis!). Stanford has not drop a set to any squad not named Penn State in this year. On the other hand, the Cal Bears really have nothing to lose and it is always fun to test oneself against the best.
My prediction, Stanford in 4 sets with the Bears being content to get a set (it would be a moral victory) and use that to build on a successful Pac-12 run.
California Golden Bears (9-2, 0-0 in Pac-12) at Stanford Cardinal (7-2, 0-0 in Pac-12)
Where: Maples Pavilion
When: 8 pm PT
TV: Pac-12 Networks