Haas Pavilion wasn’t even filled to half capacity Saturday night when Cal volleyball played UC Riverside to determine who would leave the Molten Classic with the best, and only unscathed, record. The venue actually wasn’t even a quarter full as goggled senior Jenelle Jordan followed up on her .786 hitting percentage and career-high 11 kills in an easy win over Southern Utah on Friday with yet another stellar evening, capping off a weekend that would earn her the tournament’s MVP. No, maybe 150 or so stood witness to the evening’s proceedings — perhaps a reflection of the Bears’ recent mis-footings and failures to compete at a significant level nationally.
But, those in attendance were treated to what could have been the seminal step in Cal’s planned 180-degree reversal of course. The Bears would finish the match on top, winning five sets against an undermanned Highlanders squad that fought well for being so beneath its weight class against a Pac-12 program. When Cal huddled one final time after they spiked home the point that not only won them the UC Riverside match, but also secured the Bears sole ownership of the tournament’s only 2-0 record, they did so with the inescapable knowledge of how close they had been to another failure.
The Bears lost the match’s first two sets — a result of a perplexing and frustrating combination of freshman jitters from some and veteran slip-ups from others. This went along with a downright dominant performance from UC Riverside’s Mickayla Sherman, a freshman hitter who nearly won this match herself. But with the score tied 21-21 in the third set, and with their heartbeat fleeting down two games to none, the Bears decided for the first time in a while that it was time to win.
“It was a mentality thing,” Jordan said. “I think we adjusted very quickly and well to what they did, but I think in that third game there was just a shift in mentality to ‘Okay, we’re winning this.’”
And win they did. The Bears would rally to take the set 25-21, and handily defeated the Highlanders in the next two to finish victoriously.
The two straight wins against the Thunderbirds and Highlanders were due in no small part to Jordan’s considerable impact. Whether it was calling out a defensive assignment when she saw what the offense was planning, blocking a spike at the net or delivering a kill that met the ground with a deafening slap, Jordan played the enforcer all weekend.
“We all know what she can do at the net, she’s always been phenomenal at the net,” said Cal head coach Rich Feller. “But what she’s done with her serving game and her defensive game, just the ball skills she’s developed with this being her senior year, are such a jump from even where she was last year. I couldn’t be more happy or impressed with her game right now — it’s at the highest level.”
Other Bears took control in their own right as well. Junior and freshman outside hitters Christine Alftin and Maddie Haynes played well, notching kills off of well placed sets and growing stronger as the match wore on. Jordan, even when asked about her own play, again set up her teammates.
“(Haynes) is awesome. With those freshman nerves, to come out and perform the gameplan and do exactly what the coaches tell her is really impressive,” Jordan said. “She’s already great, but she’ll become even greater with time. She’s got a very bright future.”
While it’s never wise to get too high off a single successful tournament, this weekend could reflect the supposed growth of a program that’s recently struggled to get out of its own way. Early in the match the Bears couldn’t utilize their considerable size advantage due to the strength of the Highlanders gameplan to get them out of position, losing point after point in a way that echoed the hardships of old. The grit they showed to claw back for the eventual victory simply hasn’t been associated with the program for a while now — but it’s one that could keep them at least relevant in the hypercompetitive Pac-12. But for now, it’s a couple of wins for a team that still has much to prove.
Austin Isaacsohn covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected].