The first day of the Pac-12 South Tournament in Tucson, Arizona left two beach volleyball teams, Cal and UCLA, with the prefix “undefeated” still attached to their names. But by the end of the second day, one of them would lose that status.

Let’s start by looking at No. 11 Cal’s performance. The Bears defeated both Washington and the host team Arizona State on Saturday, taking the competitions 4-1 and 5-0, respectively, to extend their season streak to four wins. After handy defeats of Santa Clara and USF last weekend in which Cal didn’t drop a single set, this weekend’s matches proved to be more of a challenge.

The Bears’ first match loss of the season came during the No. 2 round with the Huskies. The Washington duo of seniors Kristen Gengenbacher and Cat McCoy beat sophomore Caroline Schafer and junior Iya Lindahl in two close but definitive sets, 21-18 and 21-19.

The No. 1 round nearly saw Cal lose another match, as Washington’s pair pushed sophomore Mima Mirkovic and freshman Jordan Polo to a close third set, but the Bears managed a final 15-13 win to seal the 4-1 victory.

Later in the day, Cal saw two more matches go to three sets as the Sun Devils tested the Bears’ skills. Cal’s No. 5 duo of senior Mia Merino and junior Abby Waldburger was forced into a third set after losing the second 16-21, but a resolute 15-5 win under pressure in the third left no question as to which was the superior team.

Sophomore Alexia Inman and junior Madison Dueck had a much closer contest in the No. 4 match — their third set went back and forth far past the 15-point mark until the two Bears finally sealed the deal at 23-21.

No. 1 UCLA also played and defeated both Washington and Arizona State on Saturday, though with a bit more ease — both matches ended 5-0 with not a single set dropped by the defending national champions. The Bruins’ victory over the Huskies was especially brutal, as UCLA never let its opponent earn more than 16 points in any set.

UCLA’s No. 2 duo of junior Lily Justine and senior Sarah Sponcil was particularly effective, as the two beat their Arizona State counterparts 21-14, 21-5 and finished off Washington 21-12, 21-10. Only a few days before this tournament, the Bruin duo was named the first Pac-12 Beach Volleyball Pair of the Week for this season.

With both Cal and UCLA ending Saturday with their undefeated streaks still intact, it was down to Sunday morning to determine who would keep that status. In the end, the No. 1 team in the nation used the opportunity to further solidify its dominance.

UCLA beat the competition 5-0, furthering its own 2019 streak to nine wins. This is the best start to a season the team has ever seen, far surpassing the Bruins’ previous record 5-0 start in 2015. This feat shows that even the top team can still get better and better with every season and that success doesn’t bode well for the Bears or the rest of the conference as the season continues.

While it was a decisive loss for Cal, their No. 4 and No. 5 duos showed that the Bears have done some of their own improving by taking their matches to three sets, refusing to let the Bruins sweep them completely.

The youth of beach volleyball in the collegiate realm is still evident in the wide range of skill levels among programs. The older teams have established their dominance and continue to improve, but the younger teams should not be underestimated or forgotten. A growth spurt could hit at any time, sending an unexpected team from the bottom of the rankings to the top of the competitive pool.

Cal is in the precarious position where they could either be the team that rises up to surprise everyone or the team that gets its feet swept out from under it by an up-and-coming program. The Bears will have to remain wary while working on their own development throughout the season if they hope to top last year’s record-breaking season.

Alison White covers beach volleyball. Contact her at [email protected].


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