Cal headlines crowded Pac-12 field

Cal's Shannon Hawari was one of the top high school volleyball players in the state of Texas a few years back. So were three of her current Bears teammates. But she really didn't get to know any of them until they arrived in Berkeley, Calif., far from the Lone Star State.

This season, Cal's Texas connection would love to make a trip home in December with the rest of the Bears: Volleyball's Final Four is in San Antonio. It would be a return visit for Cal, which made it that far last year before falling in the championship match to Penn State in Kansas City, Mo.

"We're very excited about what we might be able to do," said Hawari, a redshirt junior middle blocker from Plano, Texas. "But we have to just stay focused on what's next."

Which now means a visit from the only two teams that have defeated Cal so far this season, both losses coming back in September. Friday, the No. 2 Bears will host No. 6 UCLA; Saturday, they'll face No. 4 USC, which also went to the Final Four in 2010. The Trojans and Bruins will switch foes and also play No. 5 Stanford during a Friday-Saturday slate that promises to be a very big volleyball weekend in the Bay Area.

All these teams are strong Final Four contenders. But there's a long path still to go just to decide who wins the Pac-12 -- No. 10 Washington is also very good -- let alone who will make it to the Alamo City.

Cal has impressively started this season 21-2 despite losing AVCA player of the year Carli Lloyd, the Bears' setter, to graduation.

That role has been filled by one of the Texas Bears, Elly Barrett. Actually, she's a Californian by birth; her mother, Sheila, played volleyball at Santa Clara, and her father, Tod, was a rower at Long Beach State. The family moved to Austin, Texas, when Barrett was 4, though, so she grew up a Texan.

Living in Austin, she had one of the top collegiate volleyball programs in the country right at home: Texas has made the Final Four the past three seasons. Barrett considered playing for the Longhorns but decided to spread her wings instead.

"I just loved Cal, and I wanted to go to a new place," she said. "Somewhere I could be new to the city. [Texas] is a great school, but I would have just been staying in the same place. I still have family in the [Bay] area, and I knew that it would be nice to have them around to come to games."

But the junior Barrett had to wait her turn, as it were, with Lloyd starting. Barrett played in just 30 sets combined the past two seasons. Her patience has paid off; this year, Barrett leads the team in sets played, 74, and assists, of course, with 871. She also has 173 digs, third on the team behind junior defensive specialist Robin Rostratter and senior outside hitter Tarah Murrey, who was a first-team All-American last year.

"I got to practice against Carli and a top team in the country every day for two years," Barrett said of playing behind Lloyd. "That was definitely a plus."

Barrett said she "knew of" but didn't actually know current teammates Hawari, Adrienne Gehan and Lauren Loerch when all were playing high school/club volleyball in Texas.

Gehan is from Dallas and Loerch from Georgetown, which is about a half hour from Austin. Both are sophomore hitters. Hawari is the oldest of the Texas Bears; she had to redshirt the 2009 season after tearing the ACL in her left knee shortly into that season during a match against Hawaii.

"I went up for a quick set, and I kind of drifted to my left and then landed just on that leg. It buckled," Hawari said. "I went through rehab pretty quickly and started jumping again, but I was used to running slides a lot, which is off that leg. Last year, I barely ran those at all, because it just wasn't there yet.

"So I think this year is the first time [since the injury] where I feel like I can do everything I really want to do on the court and contribute on every play. It gives our setter more options to run."

A slide is where an attacker jumps off one leg and hits the ball while drifting through the air. It can be a particularly effective tactic for a middle blocker/hitter, and Hawari is one of the best players at that position in the country. She has 12 solo blocks and 70 block assists along with 182 kills.

Murrey, who leads the Bears with 297 kills, is a candidate for player of the year. And an emerging young hitter for Cal with quite a volleyball pedigree is Lillian Schonewise, who is the current Pac-12 freshman of the week. Schonewise's mother, Karen, and aunt, Enid, were both volleyball stars at powerhouse Nebraska in the 1980s.

Hawari earned Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week honors Monday after the Bears swept Arizona and Arizona State this past weekend. Cal has won 18 of its 23 matches this season 3-0, with the other three victories being 3-1.

The Bears' losses -- 3-0 at USC on Sept. 23 and 3-1 the next day at UCLA -- showed Cal where some of its weaknesses were. Now the Bears have the opportunity to play those teams again and perhaps move into first place in the Pac-12.

Even though Cal is the highest-ranked team in the league, USC is atop the standings at 12-1. Cal and UCLA are tied at 11-2, and Stanford is 10-3. (No. 1 Nebraska, by the way, plays at No. 8 Penn State on Saturday, so if the Huskers stumble, the nation's top ranking could be up for grabs.)

"USC and UCLA are really different types of teams, and it's a big challenge to play both of them the same weekend," Hawari said. "But we need that to prepare ourselves for what's down the road."

A road that could end up with Hawari and the other Texas Bears right back at home.

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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