Carli Lloyd lifts Cal to impressive wins

Cal took an important step toward its goal of winning its first ever Pac-10 title when the Bears came from behind to defeat Stanford in four sets last Friday at Maples Pavilion in Palo Alto, Calif.

Not only did the victory give the Bears a one-match lead over the Cardinal at the midway point of the conference schedule, it solidified Cal's position as a legitimate contender to win the national championship.

Cal's position on top of what is arguably the strongest volleyball conference may come as a surprise to some fans, especially when you consider the Bears have three upperclassmen and had to replace outside hitter Hana Cutura, the 2009 Pac-10 Player of the Year and first-team AVCA All-American.

But the 2010 Golden Bears have a lot in common with the 2007 team that advanced to the national semifinals for the first time in the program's history.

Both teams had young players in key positions.

Both teams were picked to finish fifth in the conference in the Pac-10's preseason poll.

Most importantly, both teams had a setter named Carli Lloyd.

"Carli is part of the reason we're leading the Pac-10 right now," said head coach Rich Feller, now in his 12th season in Berkeley. "Her game has matured to the point where she's a star and someone who can hold our team together. We've come to rely on her a lot, making good choices and finding the right hitter when they're in the right position."

That's exactly what occurred at Stanford last Friday, when she dished out 52 assists while leading Cal to a .347 hitting percentage against one of the best defensive teams in the country. With her second assist, Lloyd became the second Bears player and ninth player in Pac-10 history to reach the 5,000-assist plateau.

"I felt like she set maybe the best match of her career," Feller said. "She was locating the ball perfect, keeping the tempo the way we like it, finding her middle hitters in zero-tempo sets and just locating the ball so well throughout the night and mixing it up."

Junior outside hitter Tarah Murrey had 21 kills, while redshirt sophomore middle blocker Shannon Hawari hit .588 with 11 kills and sophomore middle blocker Correy Johnson hit .571 with eight kills on 14 attacks without an error.

"Tarah had more swings than anyone else, but the swings that everyone else had were so timely and mixed up so much that we were extremely successful all the way around," Feller said. "Obviously with a .347 team hitting percentage against a very big blocking team like Stanford and a very good defensive team like Stanford, Carli was the reason we were so successful.

"When you look at 2007 when we made the run to the final four, we were not a team that anyone had expected to go that far. We've got a few big-name stars on our team, mostly by what they've done in college, not by what they had done before they got here. We tend to fly under the radar a little bit, which is just fine with me."

The victory over the second-ranked Cardinal helped the Bears climb to No. 3 in this week's AVCA Top 25, the highest ranking in program history. So much for flying under the radar.

It's no coincidence that Lloyd has been involved in a lot of the highest moments in the history of Cal volleyball, including a 2008 victory at Stanford that snapped an 0-for-29 streak on the The Farm.

Along with new faces in the lineup, the Bears are running a new system. And no one was more suited to learn and run the new system than Lloyd, who has been a fixture on USA Volleyball's A2 team.

Feller and his staff began installing the new system during spring practice. Lloyd and Murrey also trained together with the women's national team during the summer in a system similar to what was being introduced at Cal.

"Training with the national team was a really good thing for me," Lloyd said. "In 10 days, you have to have chemistry and connections with players. It's a challenge. I love meeting the players and then having to adjust to their physical abilities. It's a challenge to be able to set the ball that they need to get a kill."

The Bears began the season with 15 consecutive victories but by their own admission were not playing that well.

"We dove in head first last spring with a new system, a quicker system and some new defensive alignments and blocking style, and we struggled with all of that," Feller said. "In the early fall, it was still a struggle because we weren't as successful. Even though we were racking up wins, it still didn't feel all that good."

Cal dropped its first match of the season at USC, nearly overcoming a two-set deficit before letting the victory slip through their paws at the end of the fifth set. But learning to play in a hostile environment has made Feller's team even better.

The Bears demonstrated what their offensive was capable of doing during a sweep of Washington one week later, and they carried that momentum into Friday's match at Stanford.

While anything can and usually does happen in the Pac-10, Cal is in an enviable position with a one-match lead over the Cardinal and five of its final seven matches on its home court at Haas Pavilion. That's especially important when three of those matches are against USC, UCLA and Stanford.

The Pac-10 title could well come down to Nov. 19, when Stanford travels to Cal. In each of the previous two seasons, the Bears won the first meeting but Stanford prevailed in the rematch. If Cal wins the rematch, it would sweep the season series for the first time since 1979.

To capitalize on the schedule, the Bears will need to continue firing on all cylinders this weekend at Oregon State and Oregon.

"We're not going to get overconfident, for sure," Feller said. "We know how it can go on the road, and we know once you beat a team they work harder to figure out how to beat you. That's exactly what we're going to do with USC. You learn more when you lose and you work harder to correct things."

While there hasn't been much to correct, the Bears are certainly not satisfied with what they have accomplished up to this point in the season. That's because any team that is good enough to compete for a Pac-10 title is good enough to win it all.

"This team has everything it takes to get there and win a national championship," Lloyd said. "It's really all in our hands. If we stay mentally focused, work every day in practice to get better and expect the most out of each other, I think this team can do something really great. I want to be a part of the first national championship."

Around the nation

Team of the week: Texas served notice that it is more than capable of going to toe-to-toe with any team in the country when the Longhorns defeated No. 2 Nebraska in four sets on Wednesday night at Gregory Gymnasium in Austin, Texas. The Longhorns climbed into sole possession of second place in the Big 12 with a 10-2 mark and now trail the Huskers by one match. Texas extended its winning streak to seven matches and improved to 15-5 overall. Four of UT's five losses were against teams ranked in the top five at the time of the match (No. 5 Illinois, No. 2 Stanford, No. 4 Florida and No. 3 Nebraska) and the experience of playing a strong nonconference schedule has the Longhorns playing like the team that was ranked No. 4 in the preseason Top 25.

Chip off the block: Senior middle blocker Ashley Benson's dominating play at the net is one of the reasons Indiana is tied for fourth place in the Big Ten with a 5-5 conference record and is receiving votes in the AVCA Top 25 poll with a 17-5 overall record. Benson was instrumental in last week's sweep of then-No. 13 Michigan and come-from-behind win against Michigan State. The Big Ten Player of the Week had six kills and five blocks in three sets versus the Wolverines and hit .545 with 19 kills and nine stuffs during five sets against the Spartans. Benson ranks sixth in Division I with a .423 attack percentage and seventh in blocks, averaging 1.47 per set. Her father, Kent, was a starter on Indiana's undefeated national championship basketball team in 1976.

The week ahead: Now that the second half of season is underway, teams will have an opportunity to avenge losses from earlier in the year. A share of first place in the Big Ten will be on the line when Michigan visits Illinois on Friday night. The Illini lost more than the match when they lost in four sets in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Oct. 9. They lost senior All-American outside hitter Laura DeBruler to a season-ending knee injury. In the Pac-10, Washington and Cal are tied for third and need a victory on Saturday to stay within striking distance of first-place Cal. The Huskies edged the Women of Troy in five sets on Oct. 1 in Seattle, but USC kept the race wide open when it defeated the Bears the following weekend. If Friday's Xavier-Dayton match is anything like their first meeting, fans will certainly get their money's worth. The Flyers won the match, 25-27, 25-23, 25-27, 26-24, 15-13. It was the third consecutive match in which the Atlantic 10 rivals played five sets. The Musketeers could pull to within one match of first-place Dayton with a victory.

Quick sets

Air Force snapped its 74-match Mountain West losing streak with a four-set victory over San Diego State on Oct. 21. … Senior setter Jade Michaelsen had 46 assists during a four-set victory over Utah to break the New Mexico record for career assists, finishing the match with 3,838. … Presbyterian senior libero Elizabeth Heineman had 10 digs against Gardner-Webb to become the program's first player to surpass the 1,500-dig mark. … With 14 digs during a three-set victory against Providence, senior Sara Heldman became the eighth player in New Hampshire history to record 1,000 digs and the second to post 1,000 digs and 1,000 assists. … Senior middle blocker Becci Burling had 21 kills during a five-set victory over Miami to become the 19th player in Duke history to record 1,000 career kills. … Ohio University senior outside hitter Sue Jacobi became the 11th Bobcat to record 1,000 kills with 22 against Western Michigan. … Senior outside hitter Aidan Yeager had 10 kills against Seattle University to become the sixth member of Jacksonville University's 1,000-kill club. … Mercer junior outside hitter Aimee Frutchey became the sixth player in school history to record 1,000 or more digs, with 13 during a 3-1 victory over Florida A&M. … Tennessee-Martin sophomore defensive specialist Kasey Elswick recorded 19 digs against Eastern Illinois to become the seventh Skyhawks player to reach the 1,000-dig milestone. … Junior outside hitter Kerri Schuh recorded her first career triple-double with 11 kills, 15 digs and 10 assists during Wisconsin-Milwaukee's four-set victory over Cleveland State.

Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.