Cal volleyball puts nation on notice with sweep at Rice Invitational

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Wins at home are fun, but often in retrospect they end up looking like empty calories. Even bad teams can rack up victories at home. Cal volleyball’s 5-1 start to the season in two home tournaments was nice, but you couldn’t be blamed for reserving some judgement. But now, after sweeping the Rice Invitational and extending their win streak to eight, it sure seems like there’s something real going on with the Bears.

After dropping its first game of the season and looking a little unprepared, Cal has looked plainly dominant in its subsequent win streak. Averaging little more than nine wins in the past three seasons, it’s almost certain to match its recent win totals before midterms, a massive credit to Cal head coach Matt McShane’s turnaround in his first season. Going into Houston and coming out with three wins and only dropping two sets is the action of a conference contender, something few could have predicted going into this season.

“We’re gaining some confidence — that happened the first weekend, when we won a couple of games when we were down,” McShane said. “Now we’ve been down a few more times and come back to win matches. The seniors have said a couple of times that they feel like they’re always in the match, they always feel like they’re going to come back and win. That’s a big difference between this year and last year.”

Senior Antzela Dempi didn’t slow down after winning tournament MVP in last week’s Cal Classic; she was named to the Rice Invitational All-Tournament team after a huge performance in Cal’s final win against Louisiana Lafayette. Her 21 kills were more than enough to make up for her seven service errors, a flaw that the team has struggled with as a whole.

“She hits harder than almost everybody in the gym,” McShane said. “She’s so strong, the ball comes off her hand much different than anybody else. … She hit a ball cross court, so the ball went a long way, hit a girl in the chest and knocked her down. Sometimes that happens on a down the line shot, but Antzela was 40 feet away from this girl and knocked her down.”

Freshman Mima Mirkovic continued to make her presence felt in Cal’s first two wins against Incarnate Word and Rice after a shaky initial tournament and a coming out party in the Cal Classic. Her .419 and .444 hitting lines are simply outstanding to get from a freshman and have been absolutely key in getting the Bears off to their hot start.

“She is an incredible competitor, a fabulous volleyball player, and she’s used to playing under pressure,” McShane said. “There have been teams that go after her because she’s a freshman, and I’m just like, ‘Okay, that’s not very smart.’… Nothing that she does surprised me.”

Cal continues to soar in tight games, winning two extra-point games, the first of which clinched its 3-1 win against Rice, the best team it faced this weekend. Senior Christine Alftin got the final two kills in that set and has continued to be the most steady presence for the Bears; it’s no coincidence that she’s shined the brightest when the moment has been the biggest.

“It’s something you have to learn, to play well when the pressure is on,” McShane said. “As a coach, you don’t want to dwell on it or point it out too much. …Confidence comes from believing in yourself, and it really comes from skill. If you’re skilled, you always have that to fall back on.”

If you predicted the best start for the Bears in six years, quit your day job and move to Nevada. McShane never posted a winning record in his six years as head coach at Air Force, and after three years of dismal results in Haas Pavilion, it simply didn’t look like the Bears would have enough talent to mold into a winning squad. Now, at 8-1, it’s clear that looks can be deceiving.

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