The Daily Californian Online

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By Christina Jones
Contributing Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Category: Sports > Fall > Volleyball

The Cal volleyball team has been talking about a national championship run since the start of the year, but it seemed premature for a squad slotted to finish fifth in the Pac-10.

Now, sitting atop the conference alone and with the highest ranking in school history, it's a thought that the national volleyball scene is pondering as well.

The No. 3 Bears are garnering national attention after last weekend's four-set domination of then-No. 2 Stanford at Maples Pavilion, along with three-set smackdowns of No. 18 Oregon and No. 7 Washington earlier in the season.

Cal's lone loss this year came at the hands of No. 8 USC - a match that saw the Bears fall by two points in the final frame of a thrilling five-setter. Before that defeat, Cal had a 15-match winning streak to open the season.

The team may have seen this high level of success coming, but the rest of the country didn't. And understandably so.

The Bears came into the season with a number of unknowns. Would junior outside hitter Tarah Murrey become less error-prone and grow into the gigantic shoes of Hana Cutura? Who would step up to be the libero with the departure of Kristen Kathan? How would redshirt sophomore Shannon Hawari play after suffering a season–ending knee injury early last year?

Adding to that uncertainty was the arrival of assistant coach Sam Crosson in the spring. Crosson, a former assistant at St. Mary's, brought with him a new, up tempo offense with low sets and quick swings, and a defensive configuration that is avoided in elite-level volleyball.

The stable figure was senior setter Carli Lloyd, a two-time AVCA second team All-American. A very vocal presence on the court, Lloyd is undoubtedly the team leader.

But it was unclear whether or not Lloyd's leadership would be enough to get a group of inexperienced players to a fourth straight appearance in the NCAA regional championship.

Cal could not answer its critics early given the relative weakness of its preseason schedule. However, the numbers indicated a historic season was in the making, dropping only one set over 10 matches. When the Bears play with the intensity they are capable of, their fire is unparalleled.

Even one of the best teams in the country could not snuff Cal's flame. Stanford had been holding opponents to a .155 attack rate, but Lloyd paced the Bears to a .347 hitting percentage against the Cardinal. The senior's second of 52 assists allowed her to cross the 5,000-assist threshold, a mark only reached by one other Cal player and eight players in the Pac-10. A solid .308 hitting percentage, seven digs and four blocks helped propel her team to victory.

Murrey, Lloyd's go-to attacker, has stepped into her role in a big way. A hard swinger, Murrey has yet to be contained. Despite taking tons of swings, her hitting percentage hasn't plummeted – a testament to her accuracy and smart shots.

However, should Murrey be frustrated at the net at some point in the future, it seems unlikely that the opponents will be able to contain the rest of the Bears' frontline battalion. The quick sets to the middle and slide plays that characterize the fast offense have been effective, as seen by Hawari's stellar .404 hitting percentage.

Lloyd's options are maximized by the staunch blocking, led by sophomore Kat Brown. The Bears lead the league in blocks and keep opponents to the lowest hitting percentage.

Perhaps most surprising has been the play of Cal's back row defenders. After experimenting with different liberos, coach Rich Feller settled on sophomore Robin Rostratter, who has posted strong digging numbers. Freshman Erin Freeman has been starting of late, and she hasn't disappointed.

Now that the Bears have seen every Pac-10 opponent, the second pass through their schedule should make for some exciting action. The Big Spike at home on Nov. 19 promises to be a highly contested match, but the Bears will face tests before then.

Feller has repeatedly stated that nothing is given in the Pac-10 because of the strength of each team, and the conference has seen its share of upsets.

"The target on our back just got bigger," Feller said after the win at Stanford. "Every coach in this conference is very good. They're going to study film. They're going to do what they can to try to beat us next time, and they all have something at stake now."

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