Cal volleyball survives tests of endurance at Portland State Tournament

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Yukun Zhang/File

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Fifth sets. Everything is on the line. The players are drained in energy yet are carried by adrenaline and added pressure. The bench is bellowing. The teams have everything to lose. On Friday, Cal volleyball welcomed all the emotions of the fifth set twice in back-to-back matches at the Portland State Tournament.

Ultimately, the Bears only managed to win one of those tight matches, but with a sweep Saturday, Cal escaped the tournament with a 2-1 record.

The Bears began the weekend on a rough note, dropping their first two sets to Gonzaga by close margins, 26-24 and 25-21. Struggling to find a rhythm against the Bulldogs’ changing lineup and plays, the Bears fell behind largely due to self-inflicted errors.

“It kind of took us a while to settle in and figure out how the matchup and how we needed to defend them,” said Cal head coach Jennifer Dorr.

Despite entering the third set with a 2-0 deficit, Cal had not given up hope — no matter how dominant Gonzaga had been up until that point. The Bears’ newfound drive and focus allowed them to win the third set, 25-20, before seizing a 25-23 win in the fourth set.

“In set three we knew our backs were against the wall and just dug deep and fought our way back,” Dorr said.

With the Bears’ jitters out of the way, the teams entered the deciding set finally on the same level. Yet no matter how much both teams thought they could win, only one team actually would.

The fifth set started out fairly close, but with the final whistle to be blown at 15 points as opposed to 25, every point mattered all the more. Dropping six consecutive points to Gonzaga at one point, the Bears found themselves in an 8-4 hole. Yet having already proved their ability to come back from a deficit earlier in the match, Cal followed Gonzaga’s run with one of their own, knotting things back up at 8-8.

Struggling to keep the serve and find their opportunities for runs, the Bears ultimately lost the final points to drop the deciding set, 15-11.

“While the end result wasn’t what we wanted, the fight and the resiliency to be down in a hole and claw our way back was a good stepping stone for this young team,” Dorr said.

Just a few hours later on Friday, the Bears took the court again, feeling some sort of deja vu.

Entering yet another deciding fifth set, Cal was pushed to the brink of another match, this time against host team Portland State, who had won the middle two sets.

The Bears — beyond eager to finish their day with a victory from their exhausting ten-set day — initially stumbled with the first points. Down 4-1, it seemed like the Bears still had to travel a long road to pull off the win.

They traveled whatever road necessary, though. With strong serving from freshman Gabby Bellizzi and multiple kills from sophomore Mima Mirkovic, the Bears took seven of the final nine points to end the set 15-11 — this time in Cal’s favor.

“This team put in a lot of work in the offseason to be in the physical condition to be able to play two back-to-back five setters within five hours of each other,” Dorr said. “I’m just proud of how we were able to bounce back and stay together and stay focused and pull out a much needed fifth set win.”

After a well-deserved night of rest, Cal returned to the courts for its final matchup of the weekend against in-state opponent Fresno State.

With no need for introductions, Cal got to work and stayed at it through each set, overwhelming the Bulldogs to the tune of a 3-0 sweep. Offensively shining, the Bears’ outside hitters — Mirkovic and senior captain Carmen Annevelink — connected with their setters and placed the ball better than in most of the team’s previous matches.

“When our two outside hitters play well it makes our lives a lot easier,” Dorr said. “They both rose to the challenge after a 12-hour turnaround.”

After getting up from a hard-fought defeat to win back-to-back matches, Cal proved that despite its youth — or perhaps partly because of it — the Bears can claw their way out of a deep hole and still have the energy to come out ahead.

Surina Khurana covers volleyball. Contact her at [email protected].