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Big Spike - Cal Volleyball opens Pac-12 play with loss to No.2 Stanford

No upset at Haas on Wednesday night

Cal sophomore Mima Mirkovic may need a career day for the Golden Bears to beat Stanford on Wednesday night.
Cal Volleyball Twitter

It was good to see Cal Volleyball on the Pac-12 Networks last night, now that Pac-12 play has started. For a brief moment toward the end of the 2nd set, Cal Bears played some inspired ball to almost mount a comeback to win a set, but in the end, Stanford Cardinal claimed their 13th straight Big Spike.

As a team, the Golden Bears were out hit 0.382 to 0.151 for the match. Mima Mirkovic led the Bears with 11 kills but hit just 0.182. By comparison, Stanford’s Kathryn Plummer had 14 kills from hitting 0.303 with Audriana Fitzmorris getting 10 kills from hitting 0.500.

Bears will next host Arizona State at 2pm PT on Sunday.

After 4 weeks of exhibition play, including 3 tournaments that had the the California Golden Bears traveling to South Dakota and Oregon, the start of the always very tough gauntlet that is Pac-12 Volleyball play is once again upon us. Just like the last few years, Cal will get to open and close the conference schedule against rival Stanford, who made the Final Four last year after winning their 7th NCAA title in 2016.

Yep, the relatively young Cal Bears squad will instantly test themselves against the arguably best in the Pac as Stanford are ranked 2nd in the country (behind BYU, which is a mild surprise).

Nonetheless, this year’s Cal team has shown some great potential under the direction of official new head coach Jennifer Dorr in 2018. Dorr technically took over the head coaching post with two weeks to go last year when Matt McShane mysteriously took a leave of absence. Dorr has been with the Cal program dating back to 2009 during the peak of the Rich Feller regime that saw the Bears not merely as perennial NCAA entrants but serious threats to win the NCAA title.

It is not too surprising that Dorr had went to a few different lineup combinations for the young Cal squad (just one impact senior in Carmen Annevelink now that setter Mackenzie Albrecht is 3rd in the setter lineup).

Probably Cal lineup:

Setter: freshman Jade Blevins, Blevins has over taken sophomore Isabel (insert Harry Potter references by the Cal PA guy) Potter as the starting setter but both will play in the Bears’ 6-2 rotation (both setter will come into the game with a specific outside blocker). Blevins has 248 to Potter’s 240 assists.

All rotation outside hitter: sophomore Mima Mirkovic. Mirkovic is the best all-around player on the squad, thanks in part to her experience playing beach volleyball both in high school and with the Cal program in the springs. Mirkovic leads the team with 131 kills and 158 digs. Mirkovic is hitting at 0.265 which is better than the last few years for Cal when Christina Alftin filled this role, but not quite great enough for the Bears to be a more serious Pac-12 contender.

Opposite: junior Bailee Huizinga. Hitting on the opposite side as Mirkovic is Huizinga who has 111 kills to be 2nd on the team. More importantly, she is hitting at a rate of 0.282 which is the best percentage for a non-middle blocker. Huizinga is 2nd on the team with 29 blocks, by the way.

Middle Blockers: sophomore Preslie Anderson is the mainstay Cal Bears in the middle. She is hitting 0.404 with 80 kills to go with the team best 37 blocks. Fellow sophomore Lauren Forte has taken over from freshman Bella Bergmark as the 2nd middle blocker. Forte has 26 blocks to Bergmark’s 17. More importantly, Forte is hitting 0.390 to Bergmark’s 0.250.

Occasional outside hitter: senior Carmen Annevelink is the outside hitter that plays a few rotations every set. Unfortunately, she has not been that effective, hitting only 0.174 as her 110 kills (3rd on the team) comes with 53 errors (top on the team). In the last few matches, redshirt junior Savannah Rennie has also gotten a bit of floor time. Rennie, who was the former top recruit of her class, has overcome both a liver transplant AND a complication/cancer afterward to return to play Division 1 volleyball.

Defensive back row: junior Kat Knop has overtaken fellow junior Emma Smith as the main Cal libero. With the 6-2 rotation, less defensive specialists get in matches. These are the top 2 on the team with 92 digs for Knop and 76 digs for Smith.

About Stanford:

Stanford had their own coaching change just before Cal head coach Rich Feller announced his own retirement. Stanford hired Kevin Hambly away from Illinois to take over for the retired John Dunning, who went out with a championship. Hambly has certainly worked out better than Matt McShane (since Cal has moved on from him after less than a full year of him at the helm).

Stanford has the reigning NCAA player of the year in Kathryn Plummer, who is unstoppable when she’s on. The 6’6” Plummer had 11 matches with 20+ kill last year. She also hit better than 0.400 hitting percentage in a match 11 times. Basically, she can carry a team on her back if needed.

Of course, Stanford will likely try to play a more balanced attack against the Bears. Junior opposite Audriana Fitzmorris (93 kills, 0.382), sophomore outside hitter Meghan McClure (86 kills, 0.285), and senior middle blocker Tami Alade (59 kills, 0.376, team high 44 blocks) will also be in the mix. The Stanford offense is led by junior Jenna Gray in her 3rd year of helming this prolific offense.

Against a very very tough non-conference schedule, Stanford has only dropped 5 sets - 3 in a tough 5 set loss to BYU (why the Cougars are ranked No.1) and 1 set apiece to then No.1 Minnesota and No.3 Texas.

It will be a great (though not impossible) moral victory for the Bears to take a set tonight.

Keys to a Cal Victory:

1. Nothing to lose

No one expects the Golden Bears to win this one, so there is no pressure. Should the Bears win one (Bears last took a set in the first Big Spike of 2016) or two sets, the pressure will be totally on Stanford.

2. Minimize mistakes

Bears recently lost a set when they had significantly more kills than their opponents. How? By making a bunch of service errors. There was a time in the past when no Cal Bears did the jump serve, but instead opts for the much more conservative serves to start each point. Bears actually could use a few instant points (via aces) in this one, but they can not afford to give valuable points away for free.

Mirkovic and Potter lead the team with 14 and 12 aces, but also have 24 and 18 service errors, respectively. That’s not that great of a ratio when they are not on.

3. There is no place like home

Haas Pavilion can be a tough place to play for the opponents. With it being a late mid-week start, Cal Volleyball will likely need more from the students than the neighborhood kids to make Haas a Bear Territory.

4. Slow down the Plummer

Kathryn Plummer and her 6’6” frame (she is only “short” when compared to former teammate 6’8” Merete Lutz who has just graduated last year) could be very dominant. On the year, the junior is leading Stanford both in kills (131) and hitting errors (44). Cal Bears will try to slow her down by giving her different blocking views at the net, but the Cal middle blockers (sophomore Preslie Anderson with either freshman Bella Bergmark or sophomore Lauren Forte) are quite young. Nonetheless, if the Bears can hold Plummer to a 0.200 hitting percentage, they might have a chance.

5. Make (kill) shots

It’s always about “make shots” regardless of sports that would lead to a Cal victory.

Cal Volleyball (8-3, 0-0 in Pac-12) vs. Stanford Cardinal (8-1, 0-0 in Pac-12)

Where: Haas Pavilion (Berkeley, CA)

When: 8 pm PT

TV: Pac-12 Networks (Kate Scott + Amy Gant)