California and Arizona came into the season in similar situations. The Golden Bears and Wildcats both had new coaches and were looking to turn things around. The Wildcats had hovered around .500 for several years while the Bears have one Pac-12 win in the last three years. Both will be looking for their first Pac-12 win of this season on Friday evening at Haas Pavilion.
The Bears used a very favorable schedule to build confidence and an 11-0 record in nonconference play. It hasn’t helped them get their first Pac-12 win since the spring of 2021, though. They opened the season with a loss to Stanford and a five-set loss at Utah.
Considering the Bears’ record, it might seem like a different trip this year than in past seasons. For the past several years, Cal has not been a real threat to anyone. Stanford stood on its own in that regard when teams went to the Bay Area. Arizona head coach Rita Stubbs doesn’t see it that way.
“I can honestly say we’ve never gone on a trip or played a match where we’re like, ‘oh, we’re gonna win this,’” Stubbs said. “I go back to 2001 when we were in the Final Four and our players felt like, ‘oh, this match isn’t important.’ I won’t name the school, but this match isn’t important. And Dave [Rubio] was like, ‘No, every match is important because how you win is almost the same as how you would lose.’ So, for me, for us, it’s always about fighting, which is why the ASU match was so disappointing because the last thought we left with was that we didn’t fight. So, you don’t even put yourself in the argument of being a legitimate team if you’re not competing from beginning to end.”
The Bears will try to get their first conference win this weekend against an Arizona team with its own problem. Like Cal, the Wildcats dropped one road game and a game against a top 10 opponent last week. They have struggled to put a complete match together, especially since Pac-12 play started.
If the Bears can get it done, it will likely come down to their star freshman Maggie Li. The 6-foot-3 outside hitter from Beijing is fourth in the league with 4.13 kills per set.
Cal also has a strong defender in Tara DeSa. She is leading the Pac-12 in total digs (218) and digs per set (4.64).
“They’re similar to us in a sense, and I wrote it on our scout for our team that there’s a new head coach there,” Stubbs said. “They want to win for her. It’s a new energy and it’s the same thing I hear the players say for me, which you appreciate that but that’s a lot of pressure to kind of put on yourself. I think the fact that they’ve had success and they’ve won several matches and they fought, they’re walking in with a different sense of energy than we have, a different sense of competence. And we get them on their floor first and I’m excited. I’m watching them play. They’re playing some pretty good defense, they pass well, and they have Maggie Li. She’s a legitimate player. Pretty excited to see her in person.”
Defense is something that senior defensive specialist Haven Wray is able to bring to the Wildcats. Stubbs began playing Wray more because she wasn’t afraid to go after any ball. That’s something Wray prides herself in, and it’s something the Wildcats need if they are going to be successful.
“I think that the main focus on defense is just effort, all-out effort all the time,” Wray said. “And I came in with very little technique, and I’ve definitely worked on that, but my mindset when digging balls has always just been get ball up, go get ball up. So, that’s kind of where it can be chaotic sometimes, but also that’s what gives the team energy when everybody’s diving, everybody’s going crazy. And I think that that is my focus in the back row. Just, no matter how far anything is, all-out effort. You never know what you can touch until you actually try. And I think that our team is capable of getting a lot more scramble plays, but they just have to figure that out first, and that’s what I’m trying to show.”
Wray will likely be getting more play going forward after the departure of junior pin Puk Stubbe, who left suddenly after last Thursday’s game at Arizona State. The junior left town by Saturday after quitting the team on Friday.
Arizona played one of its strongest matches of the season on Sunday against No. 7 Washington State. After re-watching the match, Stubbs said she felt that the team kept up their fight in all but the fourth set. It was also the first match in a considerable period of time when all three of the Wildcats’ pin hitters were on. That’s an aspect of the game Stubbs is trying to encourage as the season progresses.
“You have to keep their energy and their enthusiasm and their ability to know that they did the right thing,” Stubbs said. “You have to keep that up while you’re steady trying to bring up the other pieces that are causing the disarray, be it the bad passing or the mistimed serve or the poor set choice or the missed block or the poor communication...Deitre [Collins-Parker] has this saying when she played on the Olympic team that they tell them that you have to have four players on. So, to me, we’re close. We have three on now. Can we get four on?”
Stubbs also used some different looks against the Cougars. At a couple of points, she pulled everyone but Sofia Maldonado Diaz, Jaelyn Hodge, and Giorgia Mandotti off the floor in serve receive. The formation was generally successful, leading to kills by Jordan Wilson.
She also appeared to switch to a 6-2 offense with two setters on two occasions, but it lasted just one point in each instance. The first time, backup setter Kasen Rosenthal set the ball to starting setter Ana Heath, who was able to score. Rosenthal left the game right after the play.
That type of play may continue in the future. Stubbs said they’re trying to present something opponents are unprepared for.
“We have to present a different look,” Stubbs said. “If you do a scout on us, you look at the numbers, you look at the data that’s out there on us, clearly, I think every team we’ve played has gone in with a strategy of we’re going to take Sofia out or we’re going to take Jaelyn out, or we’re going to make Jordan’s life miserable. And the key is to make sure that you constantly have a plan B. We can’t just bank on Plan A and if A doesn’t work, then, ‘oh, crap, what do we do?’ So, we’re creating different scenarios. We have a couple more things that we can throw at our opponents to hopefully take some breathing room or the pressure off players at different times.”
The players still feel they can reach their goals this season.
“It’s something that we’ve definitely been thinking about, but it is 100 percent all of our goals to get to the NCAA tournament and there’s nobody that thinks that we can’t,” Wray said. “And we know that we’re capable. We know we have the skill. We know we have the players, but it’s just fine tuning the last few pieces that our team needs.”
Arizona Wildcats (5-8, 0-2 Pac-12) @ California Golden Bears (11-2, 0-2 Pac-12)
When: Friday, Sept. 29 at 7 p.m. MST
Where: Haas Pavilion in Berkeley, Calif.
Streaming: Cal Live Stream
Stats: Arizona Live Stats
Rankings/RPI: Neither team is ranked in the AVCA poll. California is No. 43 in the unofficial RPI. Arizona is No. 87.
Arizona Wildcats (5-8, 0-2 Pac-12) @ No. 3 Stanford Cardinal (9-2, 2-0 Pac-12)
When: Sunday, Oct. 1 at 1 p.m. MST
Where: Maples Pavilion in Stanford, Calif.
Streaming: Stanford Live Stream
Stats: Arizona Live Stats
Rankings/RPI: Stanford is ranked No. 3 in the AVCA poll and No. 2 in the unofficial RPI. Arizona is No. 87 in RPI.