Though sometimes it’s hard to tell, there’s more to fall sports in Berkeley than the football team – and this is the first of three Bear Insider looks at teams that often get lost in the shadows of Memorial Stadium, along with some pretty amazing accomplishments.
For example, the rugby 7s have won four straight national titles, and the women’s volleyball team made 11 straight trips to the NCAA tournament. Here’s a brief glimpse at how those programs shape up this fall.
More than a few Old Blues, and younger ones too, kvetch about the late start times in football which, of course, are set to satisfy not fans, players or coaches but the golden goose of television. But a late start is one thing – what about a seven-month delay between the end of the season and the NCAA playoffs?
That’s how it works for rugby 7s, the slimmed-down younger sibling of classic rugby, which puts 15 on the field at one time rather than seven, and is an Olympics’ darling. But seven or 15, never fear, coach Jack Clark has the Golden Bears’ rugby juggernaut in top gear, as Cal has won three straight national titles in 7s – but with the additional challenge of playing the final conference game in November, and then the NCAA playoff games in June.
Why, you ask? Do you really have to? Television likes the idea of the 7s playing off in June, with no competition from football and basketball – and of course, the traditional 15-man game is played in the spring, and the 7s’ players are all part of the roster, so it’s not like they’re not playing.
But the transition isn’t exactly the same. “It’s materially different,” says Clark. “The games are played tactically differently,” in great part because the fewer number of players lays a greater emphasis on speed and movement in space. And the games are timed much differently as well, with rugby 7s playing two seven-minute, running-clock halves.
“7s is a pretty cruel game,” says Clark “because the time is so short. If you fall behind, you’re chasing the game.”
Of course, most teams wind up chasing Cal, and with Russell Webb and Anthony Salaber returning from last year’s 23-0 team, even in the short and uncertain rugby 7s games, the Bears are definitely in the hunt for a fourth straight national crown.
And Clark, already in mid-career a legend in the sport of rugby, says he’s only just beginning to figure out 7s. “We started from a dead standstill,” he says, “so our play gets a little more sophisticated every year. I’d like to hope we can build on the things we’ve been doing.”
That said, though, 7s are harder to predict than most sports. “The best team doesn’t always win,” says Clark. “It’s a knife’s-edge game.”
Defensive specialist Maddy Kerr -Photo by GoldenBearSports.com
Rich Feller enters his 17th year as Cal’s women’s volleyball coach, and the landscape has changed in his long tenure.
When he arrived, Cal was an afterthought in the old Pac-10, but Feller built up the program to the point that Elite Eights and Final Fours were reasonable expectations pretty much every year. But the last two seasons have not been kind to the Bears, who have been dogged by injuries and failed to make the NCAA Tournament.
But Feller feels Cal is ready to bounce back, even in the tough Pac-12, and is confident that a healthy squad will be right in the mix for a postseason berth.
“My team this year is much more experienced,” he says, and he has three seniors who will carry much of the load.
Six-two Jenelle Jordan is a four-year starter at middle blocker, and her defensive skills are crucial to a team that needs to improve in that area. “Blocking and defense,” says Feller of his focus for the 2016 edition. “Blocking stops and channels the attack, which makes it easier to defend.”
And though one might think blocking is all about size and jumping ability, Feller sees it differently. “More important is positioning (of the hands) and timing,” he says – though it doesn’t hurt to be tall and talented. Cal should take a step up in both aspects, Feller feels. “We’re more athletic and bigger.”
Still, skill is a big part of volleyball success, and the two other seniors have plenty. Setter Alyssa Jensen will be starting for her third season, and libero Maddy Kerr (daughter of Steve) for her fourth. In addition, Kerr had offseason shoulder surgery and Feller expects her to be even better in 2016.
A fourth key player is redshirt sophomore Ashten Smith-Gooden, who missed last year with a knee injury. She was a top five recruit coming into Cal but has yet to be fully healthy, and if she lives up to her recruiting billing, she could give the Bears some extra punch as a 6-2 outside hitter.
But Feller has more options than ever before, thanks to two transfers and some incoming freshmen. “We have more depth,” he says. “In fact, two starters last year will have to battle to start again this year.”
Of course, everyone’s optimistic before the games begin, and Feller and fans will get a sense of where the Bears stand during preseason. The four key matches – West Virginia, Santa Clara, Long Beach State and UOP – are scattered through the 10 games of preparation for the brutal Pac-12 season, and a 3-1 or 4-0 mark through that quartet would be cause for optimism.
And even though Feller and his players realize the difficulty of the task in front of them – “It’s not easy to leapfrog over the teams ahead of us last year” – there’s reason to believe. Though winning the Pac-12 seems out of reach, a jump from the lower levels of the standings to the middle of the pack would be a major step forward.
And it would also put Cal back in the NCAA Tournament after a two-year absence, and perhaps mark the beginning of a return to national prominence for the Bears.