Aug. 19, 2011
BERKELEY - On the heels of the best season in the California volleyball annals, the Golden Bears appear ready to return to greatness this year. Last year, Cal won its first-ever Pac-10 title last season, tying Stanford for top billing, and advanced to the first national championship game in program history. The 2010 Pac-10 and AVCA Coach of the Year Rich Feller chatted with CalBears.com to discuss the upcoming season. Check back on Monday to get Feller's thoughts on the returners.
CalBears.com: What are some of the differences and similarities between this season's squad and last year's?
Rich Feller: There's a new but experienced setter in Elly Barrett controlling the offense and basically running the show - the court quarterback, so to speak. That's the obvious difference. The positive side with that is that Elly has been with our program for two years so she knows the system and the team very well. She's very tight with many of the primary players. Three of our starters from last year are her best friends and her class. There's going to be a wealth of experience overall with this team in that we really only graduated one full-time player so there's six full-time players coming back. We return the couple primary positions - both our middles, both our outsides and our libero - so we really return a lot of the primary positions this year. So in that respect, this year's team will be pretty similar to last season's.
CalBears.com: In addition to that experience, what other things will help you be successful this year?
RF: I think there's a better sense of belief in what we can accomplish. Prior to last year, we had gotten close but we hadn't gotten over the hump of getting to the national championship game. The process of getting there is such a huge deal. Going through the Pac-10 the way we did last year with the sweeps of UCLA, Stanford and Washington - also, getting the third win over Washington and then the redemption win over USC - that just amps up our confidence. We know the systems we're using are good, the work ethic we've established is good, and the culture that we have is good. This is our really second full year of this system and this style of play and I think that will help us be just that much more comfortable from day one with it.
The belief in our team and program is a lot stronger. Once you have a team buying into something and believing in something, you are stronger from the very beginning. I think with this team - with the experience of last year and the confidence that that brought - they're going to buy in right away. We have six new freshmen, and they are going to be just infused into this culture so quickly and they'll become a part of it much more rapidly because of the level of buy in from the returning players and what they accomplished. It's not going to have to take a lot of preaching, cajoling and convincing. It's just going to be a part of the program.
CalBears.com: Some of the returners noted that they didn't know how close they were to winning the national title and how good last year's team really was until after they lost to Penn State. But, they also said that fired them up for spring ball and this fall. Would you agree?
RF: If the juniors and senior are saying that and believing that, that'll become part of the system. I agree wholeheartedly. I don't think the team really quite knew how close they were and how good they were and that they could have actually done it. That comes back to helping us get there again. It's such a difficult road, and we can't look at that only for the success of our program and our season. That's the not the only goal. We have to go through step by step and get through each of the hurdles that we went through last season to get there. Part of that is winning in the nonconference season, and experience of the team and then getting through the Pac-12, and going through that with the same kinds of goals. We need to get into tournament play and not ever let up.
CalBears.com: Talk about the nonconference slate you have lined up this year.
RF: I really like our nonconference reschedule this year. I think in our first tournament, we've got a good variety of teams. It's going to be a good test for us early on. The toughest thing for us will be playing three competitive matches in two days right out of the gate. It'll be great to get playing experience for people and get the rust off. Then the trip to Virginia will be a long-distance trip for us, so that will present its own challenges. But again, it's three matches in two days with travel so that will get us ready for travel in the Pac-12. Our second home tournament will again be very competitive. That's going to be a huge challenge for us - really getting a lot of volleyball in a short period of time - with four games in two days. I'm really pretty excited. It's an ambitious preseason schedule for us because of the amount of play and the travel. I think it'll get us ready for a very long and grueling Pac-12.
CalBears.com: Speaking of the Pac-12, who do you think will be some of the heavy hitters in the conference this season?
RF: I honestly can't say anything against anybody because we know that anyone can beat anybody on a given day. I think it's going to be the same usual suspects in the top half with UCLA, Washington, Stanford, Cal, Arizona all up there fighting in those top spots. But I think Arizona State is going to be much improved this year. I think Oregon is going to be right in the mix. I don't know enough about Utah in the last year, but in years before that, they've always been very competitive, going one or two levels deep into the NCAA Tournament and winning their conference. Colorado is kind of a new unknown. They've got a lot of new recruits in there so we really don't know about them.
Washington State has a new coach that should infuse a little energy. Oregon State has got some things going for them that they're going to capitalize on. I'm pretty excited to see Utah and Colorado and give them an introduction in the Pac-12. I'm glad we get to play Stanford at home to start. I think Tuesday night could turn out to be a great night for some great volleyball. I hope we can get a great crowd on a Tuesday night with our already great fans and people who don't normally come out to volleyball.
CalBears.com: How did adding four games to the conference slate affect your nonconference schedule?
RF: We had to eliminate a whole weekend. It's why we only have three weekends of nonconference play. But it's also why I made sure that we played three matches, three matches and then four matches so that we could get 10 matches in before we started conference. Normally we have two road trips and two home weekends in a four-week preseason, and this year we didn't have that. We had to be sure we were home that third weekend in case we had to travel that first season. Going with three matches a week in the Pac-12 is going to be difficult. To play Stanford on Tuesday and then to host Utah and Colorado is going to be challenging. Opening with Stanford is a huge bonus for us.
CalBears.com: Each year, more and more fans jump on the Cal volleyball bandwagon. Can you speak to how valuable the fans are?
RF: I'm excited about all our fans. When we got to the Washington Regional, there were 10,000 people watching. The volume of noise was so energizing and even when we were away, it energized us. That's the feeling we get when we're in Haas Pavilion and we get a lot of people. We want that feeling more. The next week, we went to the final four in Kansas City and there were 14,000 people and it did not negatively affect our play. The more that we can do that at Haas, the better we are when we get to those postseason matches. I'd love to see more people in Haas. Our fans that come out every game are so great and volleyball is such a great sport, it would be great to set attendance records every night. Hopefully last year's momentum, that'll help draw the crowds at the start. The way our tournaments are scheduled, you can see a lot of volleyball. You can come and spend all day watching fantastic volleyball. Opening with Stanford will be great and will hopefully get people to come back. We couldn't ask for better fans.