COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – The Cal Volleyball team was hoping for a nice, leisurely bus ride to Denver International Airport on Sunday. It ended up being a rush.
The Bears were pushed to the limit by Air Force before prevailing in a five-set thriller, defeating the Falcons 25-22, 18-25, 19-25, 25-18, 15-10 on the final day of the Falcon Classic at Cadet East Gymnasium. Freshman outside hitter Ashten Smith-Gooden led Cal (3-0) with 17 kills at a .467 hitting percentage while junior middle blocker Lillian Schonewise had 14 kills at a .480 percentage to go along with eight blocks.
After the 2 hour, 13 minute match, the Bears hurried on to their team bus and headed off to the airport.
“I expected it to be tough,” Cal coach Rich Feller said. “It would have been nice to win in three (sets) and get out of there, but it wasn’t meant to be.”
The Falcons (1-3) are coached by Matt McShane, who was Feller’s assistant for five years at Cal. Feller said he knew Air Force would be well prepared for his Bears.
“If there is anyone who is really good at finding the cracks in a team’s defense, he’s one of those guys,” Feller said. “They pulled out all the stops and had a nice game plan against us. They kept at it.”
The Bears were able to pull it out in large part because of the play of Smith-Gooden, Cal’s prized recruit who came to Berkeley as the No. 5 Senior Ace in the country by PrepVolleyball.com. With the Falcons cheating their block to try to stop middle blocker Lara Vukasovic, Smith-Gooden took advantage.
“It was a big match for her,” Feller said. “While others weren’t having as much success on the pins, she was. It’s a good sign that she can take the lead and put away some balls like that without many errors. It’s all a good sign. Hopefully there is more to come.”
Sophomore setter Alyssa Jensen had 58 assists and is averaging 11.5 assists per set through the first three matches of the season.
“It’s never hard to get fired up for a Pac-12 team or ranked team,” Feller said. “It’s harder to get fired up for all of those other good teams that don’t get the ranking. There is good volleyball all over the country. We can’t just walk into a match and feel like we are going to win.”
After falling behind 2 sets to 1, the Bears won the final two sets handily. It was 10-10 in the fourth set when tough serving by Vukasovic helped Cal score five points in success to open things up. Three late kills by Alfin helped the Bears pull away in the fifth set and polish off the match.
“We really just had to believe in ourself,” Feller said. “We showed that we can be down like that and come back and play the way we’re supposed to be playing. It still wasn’t totally clean but we brought our level back up and were much more consistent.”
The Bears will be back in action next weekend at the New Mexico State Tournament, where they will take on Radford, North Dakota State and New Mexico State.