Beast Mode

Tarah Murrey, the Cal volleyball team’s All-American outside hitter, pushes herself athletically, physically and mentally to feast on opposing players.

Tarah Murrey
Evan Walbridge/Staff

Tarah Murrey went up for one of her many lethal swings on Nov. 19, 2010 in the Cal volleyball team’s match against rival Stanford. By the time she returned to the ground, so had her defender.

It’s not unusual for a libero to fall to the floor diving for a ball. It’s not unusual for the ball to hit them on places other than their arms.
But Gabi Ailes, Stanford’s libero, got hit square in the chest, and the force of the impact sent her flying backwards onto the gym floor.

As the Bears – and the 4,000 plus at Haas Pavilion – roared at the pure display of power, a common thought permeated the arena.

Tarah Murrey is a beast.

That was just one of 24 balls Murrey laid down that night against the Cardinal, finishing with a .356 hitting percentage against one of the nation’s best defenses to lead the Bears to their second straight win over Stanford.

That testament of her supreme athletic ability was not just contained to Haas Pavilion, or even crowds in opposing gyms. The nation became enamored with Murrey’s brute strength, pure athleticism and crafty shot selection in her breakout junior campaign.

As the 6-foot-3 outside hitter climbed into her new role as Cal’s go-to attacker that year, Murrey’s production only continued to skyrocket. The El Cerrito, Calif., product finished the 2010 season ranked third in the country in kills per set, which earned her numerous accolades, including being named a first team All-American.

The volleyball world had discovered what Murrey often imagined she was as a child.

As a youngster, one of the future attacker’s favorite activities was lurking through the tall, thick brown grass in her Bay Area backyard.

“I’d be by myself playing like I was a lion in the jungle or something, having the best time by myself,” Murrey says. “I have a very active imagination, I guess you could say, like a typical child that could think of the littlest things.”

The backyard was not just reserved for solitary play or a child’s daydreaming. It was where Murrey’s intense drive was molded and fortified, laying the groundwork for her to become the sheer athletic force she is today.

Athletic prowess was encoded into the DNA of each Murrey child. Both her mother Barbara and father Douglas were college athletes at San Jose State, playing volleyball and basketball, respectively.

Tarah’s two older brothers followed in their father’s footsteps while her sister Brittney, three years Tarah’s senior, decided to pursue her mother’s game. Brittney, who was a setter at UC Riverside, is the reason Tarah picked up a volleyball.

“I seriously wanted to be just like my sister,” Tarah says. “I was like, ‘Brittney plays volleyball, Mom plays volleyball, I have to play!’ I was pretty serious about it at a young age.”

But before Brittney and Tarah were tearing it up on the court, the duo was tearing up the backyard.

“Ruined all the plants in my courtyard, spiked all over the plants,” their mother says.

“Almost broke a few windows spiking, bumping,” their father adds. “When the volleyball would get dirty from hitting the ground and their hands, you could see imprints on the side of our garage of the volleyball.

“The anatomy of a champion.”

But despite all of the familial support and focus on sports, Tarah’s pursuit was her own. She may have started because her family exposed her to the game, but she continued because all the positive feedback she received. From perfecting a backset in the fourth grade to strong-arming a serve overhand while her peers struggled with underhand, Murrey garnered heaps of praise, but more importantly, found a spark that ignited her.

“Things came easier to me,” Murrey says. “I was like, ‘Whoa, this is fun. I want to get better at this. I want to keep training.’ My love for it grew just every single time we played.”

As a fourth grader, Murrey dreamed a little bigger than being a predator in the jungle — she wanted to represent her country in the Olympics. With her early start and intense dedication to the sport, Tarah had more time to refine her skills, allowing her to quickly emerge as a standout player.

At the age of 12, Tarah traveled to St. George, Utah, to compete against girls one to three years older than her in the USA volleyball circuit.
Murrey held her own.

“She had no fear,” her mother says.

Her fortitude and talent continued to develop through the USA pipeline and her four-year stint at Golden Bear Volleyball Club, a local youth team with a reputation for placing players in collegiate programs. From the time she was a freshman at St. Mary’s High School, Murrey had college coaches swarming gyms where she was playing.

Murrey grew up around Cal sporting events, and went to elementary and high school in Berkeley. It was no surprise that Cal coach Rich Feller was able to lure the 2007 California Gatorade High School Player of the Year to stay in her own backyard.

Although Murrey has been a four-year starter at Cal, she didn’t debut as the team’s top attacker in her first two years. Murrey had to adjust to being the number two outside hitter behind 2009 Pac-10 Player of the Year Hana Cutura.

Murrey’s numbers were respectable as an underclassmen but subpar for an athlete of her caliber, Feller says.

Murrey agrees. She wasn’t satisfied.

With Cutura’s graduation, Murrey knew considerably more balls would be coming her way, and she’d become setter Carli Lloyd’s weapon of choice. She also knew that she would be the lone junior on the squad with only two seniors, so naturally she would be thrust into a leadership role.

So she turned inward, as she did as a child, and found her drive to improve.

“I knew that I had to train harder — hitting, passing, serving, everything — to be the player I want to be,” Murrey says. “After my sophomore year, I knew that I had to make a change in how I approached the game mentally and physically.”

She sought out all the help she could get with advancing her fitness, logging extra time with the team’s strength trainer, who helped her design special workouts to maximize her results. She talked to her coaches about the things she wanted to change about her game, and they adjusted their systems to accommodate her.

She also turned to her siblings for guidance. Her brothers in particular took on brutal workouts as basketball players, inspiring their younger sister.

“They would tease Tarah from time to time because the kind of workouts you do in basketball are sometimes over and beyond,” Douglas says. “The athlete that they knew she could be I think encouraged her to do some of the kinds of things that they were doing to bring out that athlete.”
“It was kind of like, who was going to be the biggest beast in the family?” Barbara says.

In the Murrey household, being fit was as much about physical exercise as mental training. For Tarah, competition needn’t be a team sport. While she enjoys working out with teammates, she also pushes herself on her own, using her imagination to catapult her forward.

“I definitely compete with myself,” Murrey says. “Sometimes I’ll be doing an extra set of lifting or going an extra minute on cardio or something like that, and I’ll be talking to myself: ‘You can do this. This is the last point. It’s game point. You can lift this.’”

Such dogged determination has had tremendous repercussions on her volleyball career: she jumps higher, hits harder and smarter, passes crisper and lasts longer during long rallies and sets. As a result of her efforts, Murrey emerged as one of the best players in the country last year, and continues to be a front-runner for National Player of the Year as a senior.

“Belief is a very powerful thing,” her father says. “I’ve seen her grow in that respect, really mature. Whereas some situation on the court maybe or socially would derail her, she’s got the emotional, mental, spiritual strength at this time.”