A lot can change over a weekend. After a loss to UC Irvine in the first night of the round robin Cal Molten Classic, it was on Cal volleyball and new head coach Matt McShane to make the adjustments necessary to bounce back. With two big wins the next day, it’s safe to say the team passed the early-season test with flying colors.
With junior libero Amanda Kirtley out with a strained abdomen muscle, the team was in need of some leadership, and it looked to be the duo of senior Christine Alftin and freshman Mima Mirkovic who stepped up. Alftin looked like a star, playing as fluidly and consistently as anyone on the floor. Mirkovic, a member of the U.S. Youth National Team, was aggressive from the get-go. Her kills were the biggest of the games, but in her first college match, she looked a bit wild and hesitant going to tough balls.
“(Mirkovic was) a little inconsistent, but that’s to be expected in her first college game,” McShane said. “I thought she did well — a little sketchy hitting every once in a while — but she was aggressive. We wanted her to take big swings, and she did.”
The Anteaters’ front line kept consistent pressure on the Bears and had little trouble taking the first two sets, but they took their foot off the gas in the third, allowing for a 25-12 Cal win. Overhit kill attempts and poor serving doomed the comeback attempt, and UCI walked away with a four-set win.
“We’ve been more confident and more aggressive in practice this week, so that’s what we were saying during timeouts,” McShane said. “Part of that is they’re Cal students. Cal students are perfectionists. … You have to convince them it’s okay to make a mistake every once in a while.”
An outclassed Loyola Chicago team that lost every one of its matches in the tournament provided little fight Saturday morning to give Cal its first win of the season. The Bears took the first set 25-15, split the next two sets with close scores in each and finished off the Ramblers 25-19 in the fourth.
McShane has spent quite a bit of time with Cal in the past, serving as an assistant from 2005-09 and associate head coach last season, but Saturday morning’s victory was his first at the helm for the Bears.
“I’ve been here quite a while, things haven’t changed very much,” McShane said. “We’re doing the same sort of offense and defense we’ve done in the past. I know where the locker room is, I know all those things. (I’m) sitting in a different chair, calling timeouts, making more decisions, but I’ve done those things before. So really, it’s been an easy transition.”
Cal’s final match of the tournament, coming against Seattle on Saturday night, then became the rubber match for whether the Bears would open with a winning or losing record and the true barometer of the team’s ability to bounce back from day one. The Redhawks were utterly unable to serve in the first set, and faults made most of the difference in Cal’s 25-17 win.
The second set saw Seattle recover in its service game and actually begin to outdo Cal in that facet of the game. Down 21-19, Aftin went down hard to the floor and had trouble getting back up, eventually heading back to the locker room. Seattle evened up the match with a 25-23 final set score, but Aftin returned in the third set and helped Cal to take the set.
Flat-footedness and wild kill attempts had the Bears flailing in the fourth set, and down 15-8, McShane burned through his final timeout of the set. What he said there was enough to reset the team’s play and spark a dominant 17-7 run that gave the Bears their second win of the day:
“(Seattle) was serving incredibly tough, so we made a commitment to be a better serve and receive team, and we did both of those things. Both teams pushed back and forth, and Seattle had just pushed us hard the first half of that game, and I kept on saying, ‘We’ve got to push back.’ ”
The clinching play of the match? A brutally hammered spike from Mirkovic, who finished the game with a stellar .452 hitting percentage, doubling her kills and halving her errors from her debut. You can’t predict everything from a season-opening win, but a big bounce back and stellar recovery from a highly heralded prospect is an excellent way to start a season.