Up 11-2 in the third set of their opening match against Nevada, the Bears had finally found their footing. The hosts had begun to flex their might after a slow — albeit still somewhat successful — start to their own tournament. It was clear that Cal was energized to be back in its own gym and in front of a home crowd, who was roaring from the stands for the first time in nearly two years.
“I love hearing the support and cheering that’s going on instead of piping in crowd noise,” said head coach Sam Crosson of having the crowd back in force. “Hopefully, we can keep creating that type of environment for the players and start getting more support as we continue through the season, especially as we get to Pac-12 matches.”
The Bears would go on to take the third set against Nevada 25-14, en route to a statement sweep over the Wolfpack in the first game of the Cal Tournament. Senior Katie Smoot, who has been Cal’s most impressive and reliable player thus far, once again led the team with 12 kills, seven digs and three blocks.
Although the Bears rode high out of Haas Pavilion in the afternoon, the Bison of North Dakota State quickly brought them back down to earth in the nightcap.
After Cal won the first set of the doubleheader by a comfortable margin, NDSU displayed its budding talent by winning the next three rounds, including a 25-16 win in the fourth set to seal the win.
Though it was just the team’s second loss of the season, the defeat at the hands of the Bison was no doubt a sting for a Cal team that had won four straight sets. The Bears were unable to use the defeat as motivation to finish strong; instead, the stale play rolled over into their tournament finale against Butler.
“I think the strength of (NDSU and Butler) is a little bit higher than the teams we have seen thus far,” Crosson said. “On our side of the net though, there were just a lot of missed opportunities.”
Butler, who had also lost to NDSU in four sets earlier in the weekend, made quick work of the hosts, defeating Cal in four sets. After the Bulldogs stole a back-and-forth set to start the game, the teams traded a pair of lopsided 25-16 sets. The road underdogs put the scuffling Bears away by taking the last five points and ultimately took the game.
“It is not coming from a bad place, but we sometimes spend a little too much time on trying to solve everything, which gets us a little discombobulated for what’s going to come at us next,” Crosson said. “We’re still getting a little hung up on wanting things to be perfect instead of just a lot of good.”
While the losing showing at the tournament surely left a sour taste in the team’s mouth, the Bears won’t have much time to dwell on their losses — Cal will welcome Saint Mary’s on Wednesday before traveling inland to face UC Davis on Thursday.
Crosson believes these teams to be on par with the competition from this weekend’s tournament, and for good reason: Saint Mary’s comes in with a 5-2 record, while Davis has held tough through an incredibly difficult schedule thus far.
As Stanford and the rest of conference play looms large, this should provide Cal with some last-minute opportunities to work out some kinks and get back to its winning ways before next week.
“We’re nine matches in and here comes 10 and 11 fast,” Crosson said. “We are at our best when everyone is doing what they are supposed to be doing on the court.”
Noah Parker covers volleyball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.