Cal Takes on Big East Champs to Kick Off 2008

Photo: Attacker Morgan Beck is one of three seniors on the squad who aims to improve on 2007's semifinal finish in the NCAA tournament, starting with today's season opener.
Nick Fradkin/File
Attacker Morgan Beck is one of three seniors on the squad who aims to improve on 2007's semifinal finish in the NCAA tournament, starting with today's season opener.





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Displayed prominently in the window of the Cal volleyball office in Haas Pavilion is the two-foot-tall trophy that the Bears earned for making it to the final four of the NCAA tournament last year.

Starting today, No. 5 Cal begins the process of adding more postseason hardware to the view.

The Bears' first test of the 2008 season is against St. John's, a program which-on top of winning the Big East-made it all the way to the semifinals of their regional in the NCAA tournament last year.

"This will be our toughest opening match since 1999 when we opened with Hawaii," coach Rich Feller said. "We didn't necessarily go out and try to find the toughest match for the first round of play, but with our finish last year it seemed to make sense that we should start with a very challenging team."

St. John's recruits heavily from overseas-boasting eight international faces on its 12-player roster-which presents a unique challenge for Cal.

"Because there are so many international players, they're going to bring this mix of Eastern, Western and Asian styles of volleyball all thrown into a college setting," Feller said. "It's just going to present something that we haven't seen a lot of."

The Red Storm's biggest threat comes from the back row, where they boast two preseason all-Big East selections-setter Wioleta Leszczynska and libero Lena Yee.

"We have a huge target on our back so everyone's going to come in playing their A-game," Feller said. "We just have to be careful to play ours, regardless of who's on the other side."

The Bears have yet to settle on a final lineup, but Feller admitted that there would probably be a good amount of subbing in and out to test the chemistry between different combinations of players. Likely starters include the duo of Hana Cutura and Morgan Beck doing the attacking up front and sophomore setter Carli Lloyd and junior libero Kristen Kathan setting and digging in the backcourt.

"We'll see some platooning of players," Feller said. "Some starters who may not finish I think this year we have such good depth that there are a lot of interchangeable parts."

Although Friday's tilt with the Red Storm is the marquee matchup, Cal must also contend with UC Santa Barbara on Sunday afternoon. The Gauchos are by no means the toughest opponent the Bears will face this preseason, but they did score an upset win the last time they visited Haas Pavilion in 2004, a scenario that could do damage to Cal's status in the polls were it to happen this time around.

"I definitely feel there's a lot of pressure," Cutura said. "I feel like we have to prove to people that we are number five, and we don't want to underachieve now."

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Contact Katie Dowd at [email protected]



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