Free Falling

Chris McDermut/Staff

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The attacker readies herself to receive the pass and sizes up the competition. She won't try to hit through the Cal volleyball team's block - the third best regiment in the country is just too strong.

The setter has passed the ball and it's in mid-air, awaiting her decision. The attacker jumps and aims her kill toward the girl in the back row, thinking that the 5-foot-9 walk-on freshman crouching there won't be able to complete the dig.

That attacker could be any hitter in the Pac-10, since they have all come across the defensive force that is Erin Freeman.

No matter where the ball is hit, the starting defensive specialist for the No. 4 Bears will complete the dig.

She'll use her quick reflexes to snag a sharply hit ball to her side.

She'll showcase her athleticism with a pancake dive.

She'll even run into the bench to save the ball if she has to.

After all, there was a time when she was on the bench. She never thought that she would be off it so soon.

Freeman did not expect to start or even play major minutes this season. And at the beginning of the year, she seemed to be right.

She only played in six of 31 preseason sets, and was buried in the depth chart.

"It's really important as a freshman to be confident in being out there and I think the beginning part of the season she was nervous and you could see it in her face," senior setter Carli Lloyd says.

Nevertheless, Freeman kept giving her usual all-out effort in practice and knew that it was important for her to support her teammates whether she was playing or not.

"I knew that practice is so crucial to our success ... if it's by digging people so they have to work harder to get a kill and that makes them better on the court then that was important for me," Freeman says. "I knew that I was going to come in here and have to work as hard as I could and whatever happened happens.

"I didn't have a whole lot of expectations as far as playing."

Yet, suddenly in Cal's second Pac-10 game of the season, Freeman found herself playing in all three sets, and playing well.

She notched eight digs in that Sep. 26 tilt against Arizona State. Her performance in the straight-set win, along with her passionate play in practice, was good enough to warrant a start in the next match.

The Bears' dismantling of the then-No. 11 Oregon had the previously undefeated Ducks quacking for mercy. It marked a critical moment for Freeman and for the team.

"I was just in the zone in that (match) and I think a big part of it was trusting that I'm capable of playing at this level and knowing that my teammates trust me and that they all have my back," Freeman says.

"I think that was a big turning point for the team, and myself - that we're really good."

After the match, Cal coach Rich Feller raved about how well she played in her first start, and over six weeks later, he still references Freeman's performance in the match.

"She came in, no fear, dug a couple of balls, made some plays, got the team excited, and we went on to score a bunch of points in a row after that," Feller says. "She's a little spark plug ... She'll make a great play and it'll fire people up and good things happen after that."

Freeman has started every match since.

It would be another three weeks until Freeman's most memorable play - and the Bears' signature win.

No. 2 Stanford won the first set of the Big Spike on Oct. 22. Cal won the second.

After the Bears came from behind to tie the third frame at 16-16, it looked as if the Cardinal had spiked the ball down for a kill.

Or did they?

Freeman dove to save the point, her arms extended so the ball grazed her fingers instead of the hardwood. The ball popped up to Lloyd, who passed it to Tarah Murrey. The junior outside hitter smashed the ball down with full force and Cal took the lead in the swing set.

The Bears (23-2, 13-2 in the Pac-10) went on to win the match and currently remain atop the conference standings. Freeman, though, remains modest even when her play on the court is anything but. She says the point at Maples was one of the highlights of the season so far for her, but not because of what she did.

"Tarah got the kill," Freeman says, diverting the accolade to her star teammate. "(But) Tarah got so excited for me. Watching it on film felt so good."

For all the accolades, for all the praise, the Sir Francis Drake High product does not take anything for granted, not starting - not even playing, for that matter.

"I think that to play you have to continually earn it and it's not something that's just given to you," Freeman says.

Feller never knew Freeman would play such a major role when she joined the team. As a freshman and a walk-on, she was expected to be more of a practice player early on than a big match player. Feller even recalled the uncanny nature of their first meeting.

"I played volleyball with her uncle way back in the day," Feller says. "And I remember Erin actually made a visit here with her uncle when he came to see the team and he introduced his 14-year-old niece at the time, 'hey, great, way to go, keep playing.'"

"Little did we know that (a few) years later ... she'd be here on the court."

She seems to be on the court to stay. Erin Freeman often may be the shortest girl on the floor but she stands head and shoulders above her competition.


Jonathan Kuperberg covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]

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