Bears Lose a Set, Not a Step, in Wins Over Washington Schools

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After seeing its undefeated streak come to an end on Oct. 9, the No. 5 Cal volleyball team had another streak broken last weekend against Washington State.

The Bears (17-1, 7-1 in the Pac-10) had not lost a set at home all season long until the Cougars stole the second, 25-21, on Friday night.

Surprising to some, they dropped a set to unranked Washington State, which is winless in the Pac-10, and not to No. 7 Washington the following night. Three weeks ago, that same Huskies squad (15-3, 4-3) beat then-No. 5 USC - the only team to defeat Cal this season.

"You always play up when teams on the other side of the net are really good," senior setter Carli Lloyd said. "Coaches get mad at us when we don't have the same energy every night."

So far, it has not cost the Bears to take off the match against weaker teams, but the country's most difficult volleyball conference is getting even more challenging.

Last weekend, unranked Arizona State swept the Trojans and then-No. 10 UCLA. Neither Cal nor No. 2 Stanford, the Pac-10's two first-place teams, were able to beat both Los Angeles schools. If the Bears don't start playing with high energy in both weekend matches, that poached set by Cougars could turn into a devil of a match from Arizona State down the road.

Then again, part of the reason Cal was so fired up against Washington was because the squad lost a set the previous night.

"After last night, seeing the way we played and feeling the way we did afterwards, we came out with a little extra fire," Lloyd said. "We were a little crazy sometimes (even though) we're supposed to maintain a consistent emotional level At points we were skying high."

New Defense Paying Dividends

Before the trouncing of Washington, Feller gave a "Chalk Talk" for the public, answering questions and explaining Cal's new defensive scheme.

Assistant coach Sam Crosson's arrival in the spring marked a shift from the more traditional defense that guards the perimeter of the court. Instead, the Bears send three blockers to the middle, backed up by the three passers and leaving the sidelines unpatrolled.

In order to convince the skeptical Feller to employ the "middle-middle defense," Crosson made a chart of every Pac-10 hit from last season. He divided the court into grids and found that less than 5-percent of balls fell in each grid near the lines, while the vast majority were clustered in the middle.

Such overwhelming statistical evidence convinced Feller, and the system was adopted. It seems to be working, especially with the blocking. Last season, the team averaged 2.69 blocks per game. Now, the Bears stand atop the conference with a 3.15 block-per-game average, and a .131 opponent hitting percentage. Sophomore middle hitters Kat Brown and Shannon Hawari are the Pac-10's No. 1 and 2 in blocking.

The team is quick to point out, however, that the statistics are deflated the players get their hands on many more balls than what are counted as blocks. In getting a piece of a kill attempt, the Cal blockers slow the ball down or redirect it, which often makes it easier to pass. After finishing last in the conference in digs last fall, the Bears currently stand at sixth.


Christina Jones and Jonathan Kuperberg cover volleyball. Contact them at [email protected]

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