The wind howled and the rain poured as Cal fought tooth and nail for a 1-0 victory over ASU during its home finale. The ball, waterlogged from the near five inches of rain on Sunday, remained nearly immoveable, as both offenses struggled to make any progress with the weighted sphere.
It’s hard to say if the Cal defense would describe themselves as a waterlogged soccer ball, but its play definitely backs up this description.
The Bears haven’t conceded in over two weeks, as they have shut out their last three opponents. And when goals had been hard to come by for the offense, the stout defensive line kept Cal’s postseason hopes alive.
“Our defensive unit is very experienced. If you look both at (Angelina Anderson) and the players in front of her, (they’ve spent) several years together,” said head coach Neil McGuire. “Their understanding of each other is very real (and has) given us a wealth of experience to handle any scenario or deal with any offense. ”
The blue and gold will once again have to waterlog their opponent’s offensive onslaughts if they have any hope of coming out of sunny Southern California with a win to their name. USC and UCLA — the conference’s only remaining undefeated teams — await the Bears for the team’s second-to-last week of regular season play.
The Trojans and Bruins have been the class of the Pac-12 all year, currently sitting at first and third in the standings, respectively. Meanwhile, Cal made a big push in the standings this past week with two wins over the Arizona schools, leapfrogging them to sixth in the conference and putting them within shooting distance of a top-five finish.
Conference points will be incredibly hard to come by this weekend, but if it’s any consolation to the Bears, No. 10 USC enters its Thursday matchup in its most susceptible state all year. After winning their first six conference games, the Trojans have managed only overtime ties in their last two contests, showing slight gaps in their once-impenetrable armor.
Still, USC remains a force to be reckoned with, boasting an insanely impressive 42-13 season goal differential, highlighted by a 7-0 thumping over Utah earlier in the season — a team Cal beat just 1-0.
Unlike the Bears, who have almost exclusively relied on freshman Karlie Lema and her six goals for offensive production, USC is a well-balanced machine with multiple offensive options. Six Trojans have scored three or more goals, led by junior Croix Bethune, who has posted 10 goals and six assists across her remarkable season.
Experienced keeper Anna Smith will also put pressure on the Bears, as her 0.824 save percentage slots her in as one of the top goalkeepers in the Pac-12. Cal will counter with a stalwart goalie of its own in the form of Angelina Anderson, who, despite a lower save percentage, has actually allowed fewer goals than Smith.
Cal’s journey through the Golden State won’t get any easier after Thursday’s matchup, as a quick drive down Interstate 10 will lead it to yet another behemoth — undefeated No. 5 UCLA. The Bruins are one of two D1 teams yet to lose a game the entire season, and their record is blemished only by three ties in conference play.
Similar to the Bears, UCLA’s secret to success lies in its defense, which allows just 0.59 goals per game, a mark good for second-lowest in the Pac-12. Meanwhile, on offense, Mia Fishel and Reilyn Turner’s 20 combined goals account for more than half of the Bruin’s totals offensive output.
While the opponents this week will certainly test Cal’s ability to compete with tough teams, it will also provide the Bears with a fantastic opportunity to capture a meaningful win and build their resume for a postseason berth.
“We certainly have our own destiny in our hands,” McGuire said. “We have very challenging opponents, but we are very confident in ourselves. If we are able to perform well … we would hope that we would make the NCAA tournament.”
The 2020 squad was nearly in the same exact position as this year’s team finds itself in, but proceeded to lose its final four games; Cal’s stalwart defense will try to make sure that history does not repeat itself during its trip to Southern California.
Noah Parker covers volleyball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.