By Jonathan Okanes, Athletic Communications
BERKELEY – The Cal volleyball team still has three players from the 2011 squad that was ranked No. 1 in the country for four weeks. In other words, the Bears have some players that know what it takes for a team to play at the highest level.
As training camp opened Saturday for the 2014 season, those players hoped to get the message to their teammates that it can happen again.
“At the beginning of the season, we set a goal to win a national championship, and obviously the Pac-12 as well,” senior opposite hitter Christina Higgins said after the first practice of 2014. “I think as seniors we are doing all we can to get that in the heads of everyone else – that it’s possible if we work for it.”
That work began Saturday, with the first of 12 double-day sessions that the Bears will participate in during training camp. Cal welcomes back Higgins – an AVCA Second Team All-American last season – along with starting middle blockers Lara Vukasovic and Lillian Schonewise, and libero Maddy Kerr, a 2013 Pac-12 All-Freshman Team selection.
With 19 players on the roster, this is the biggest team in Rich Feller’s 16 seasons as Cal’s head coach. The Bears feature a sizable eight-player freshmen class, several of whom with a chance to contribute right away. The power in numbers gives Cal a great sense of depth as it embarks on 2014.
“We have a couple people where we don’t know where they are going to end up playing this year, which is a good thing, “Higgins said. “It gives us a lot of options.”
Higgins, fellow senior Marlee Davis and Schonewise – a redshirt junior - were all on the 2011 team that sat atop college volleyball for a month and spent the entire regular season ranked in the top-10. The Bears were ranked as high as No. 20 late last season before a string of injuries slowed them down. They got healthy enough for the NCAA Tournament and advanced to the second round before falling to eventual NCAA runner-up Wisconsin on its home floor.
“I think it’s always a good thing to have someone that has experience and has been in the pressure cooker,” Feller said. “Each year, it’s such a new competition of teammates. It never hurts to have experienced players. It’s always a good thing to have players on your team that have had a great deal of success. But every year is new.”
And the new season started in earnest Saturday. It marked the first time since 2009 the Bears started training camp without All-Pac-12 outside hitter Adrienne Gehan. Cal also has to replace All-American setter Joan Caloiaro.
There are plenty of new faces to help fill the void of Cal’s departing players. Included in the freshman class is outside hitter Ashten Smith-Gooden, the No. 5 Senior Ace by PrepVolleyball.com. Outside hitter Christine Alftin and middle blocker Laura Leap are also top-100 recruits nationally.
The Bears also see the return of outside hitter Nikki Gombar, who missed last season after undergoing shoulder surgery.
Cal opens the season on Aug. 29 against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville at the Air Force Tournament.
“We have a long way to go,” Feller said. “We have a lot of work to do. I think there’s a lot of good attitude and good effort. We definitely have a lot of pieces to put together, but that’s what first days of practice are all about.”