Cal volleyball goes 3-0 at Cal Classic to continue hot start

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Leslie Yang/File

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In last week’s Cal Molten Classic, Cal volleyball overcame a shaky start and initial loss to post impressive wins in their last two matches, a successful result. A much stronger result? A perfect 3-0 record in a tournament, like the one that the Bears put up in the Cal Classic at home this weekend, placing the Bears at a blistering 5-1 record to start the season after a 9-21 in the 2016 season.

“We’ve been playing against some pretty good teams,” said Cal head coach Matt McShane. “I think that our skill is allowing us to get the wins, but now we have some confidence that goes along with the skill. Even when we got pushed a couple of times … now we have some confidence to push back against those teams.”

Beginning the season with two tournaments hosted in Haas Pavilion certainly put Cal in good position to launch into the year with excellent initial results, and the Bears completely capitalized on that gift. In the first tournament, it was a gutsy effort that took everything the team had. This weekend it looked, quite frankly, easy.

Dartmouth was the first challenger of the weekend, and although the Big Green finished well under .500 last season, it looked to be an aberration after decent 2014 and 2015 seasons. A win on the road would have helped to put Dartmouth on the right road this season, but the Bears didn’t even give the Ivy Leaguers a moment to think that might be the end result. It was a brutal 25-14, 25-14, 25-7 drumming, with Cal easily doubling up their opponent on aggregate points.

12 combined kills from seniors Christine Alftin and Antzela Dempi lead the Bears to one of their most dominating performances in years — posting their best hitting percentage since the 2013 season. Freshman Mima Mirkovic also got to show off a new facet of her game; after displaying a penchant for huge kills in her debut weekend but struggling somewhat with the defensive aspects of the game, she led her team with eight digs.

“I think it’s comfort,” McShane said. “The lineup is solidifying a little bit, and when you play defense a lot of it is getting comfortable with the people who play next to you. … (Mirkovic) is getting a little bit more comfortable, I think this weekend is the (Mirkovic) that we’re going to see for most of the season.”

The next morning, Cal kept the ball running with a somewhat tighter win against Eastern Washington, but even that still only took three sets. Junior Carmen Annevelink, who had been reliable all over the floor in the Molten Classic, now took the lead role, finishing with a dozen kills, seven digs, and two blocks for the cherries on top. Her powerful but erratic serve form led to three service errors, but there’s no doubt faults in that area can be overlooked with a performance like the one she turned in Saturday morning.

“It’s a tribute to how hard they have worked since January,” McShane said. “I’m not sure how much (Dempi) and (Annevelink) believed that the work they were doing was paying off back in May. … It was a hard spring mentally, physically, emotionally. They had to do some stuff they weren’t used to doing, they had to work beyond their comfort level and it really is a tribute to those two on how hard they worked. Now it’s payed off for them, they’re doing a nice job.”

Later in the night, Texas Tech gave Cal its biggest challenge of the tournament and the Bears had to scrap in each set. The Red Raiders managed to take the third set after Cal took a demanding 2-0 lead, but every individual set was close, and the Bears only clinched it in a 26-24 final set. The home team had a 15-11 lead that should have started the endgame of the match, but Texas Tech did a good job of battling back and making Cal earn its final victory.

Dempi and Annevelink combined for 36 kills, with Mirkovic contributing 11 kills and 21 digs on top of that. With performances like this from their core, the Bears won’t have trouble keeping their winning ways going when they hit the road.

“We took our level of success last year to heart, and everybody made a commitment to work a little harder,” McShane said. “The coaches and the players. Nobody liked the record that we had last year. Did I think we were going to start 5-1? I’m very pleased but now I’m nervous about the next game coming up.”

Andrew Wild is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @andrewwild17.