Cal volleyball makes defensive changes, winning two home matches

Austin Shipley /Staff

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After a play during the first set of a 3-0 victory for the Cal volleyball team (11-4, 2-2) against Arizona State (10-6, 0-4), senior Christine Alftin was laying face down on the side of the court. In an attempt to chase down a ball that had flown wide, the Bears’ captain dove to keep the ball in play, toppling a chair on the sideline. She laid with her forehead to the ground, clearly in pain, for several seconds without moving.

Although Alftin was out briefly, within a few minutes she was not only back on the court but had gotten the very next kill of the game. Right then, it was clear that Cal was ready to make all the sacrifices necessary to overpower the Sun Devils.

Following the win Friday night against Arizona State, the Bears beat Arizona 3-2 at their Sunday match.

“Resiliency,” said Cal head coach Matt McShane. “Courage and resiliency was a big deal.”

Against Arizona State, Cal’s defense was stronger than it had been in the past few matches, against No. 2 Stanford and No. 15 Utah, as Cal compiled a total of eight blocks. Arizona State’s defense was nearly on par with Cal’s, racking up six blocks and 63 digs.

“We worked really hard this week and we really focused on blocking and studied their offense,” said senior Antzela Dempi, who led the team with nine kills. “We got some really good digs, and also our serve and pass game was definitely there.”

While last week’s defense-centered practice appeared to pay off for the match against Arizona State, the Bears executed offensively as well. Instead of sending a majority of the sets to one pin hitter like the Sun Devils did with Oluoma Okaro, setters Mackenzie Albrecht and Isabel Potter varied whom they set to, allowing for a more unpredictable offense.

Freshmen Mima Mirkovic and Preslie Anderson had a strong match with kill percentages of .313 and .353, respectively. Junior Carmen Annevelink had an error-free game, translating her 20 attack attempts to a .400 kill percentage – a remarkably high statistic.

“One of the most satisfying feelings is when you (block a hitter) one-on-one,” Dempi said. “I remember the end of the second game, (it was) the last point, and I got her. That feels nicer than even getting a kill sometimes.”

In Sunday’s match against Arizona (7-6, 1-3), the Bears had several of the notable solo blocks that Dempi mentioned. The strong defense, again, attributed to Cal’s five-set win (25-19, 25-20, 15-25, 22-25, 15-11).

One significant change in defense was sophomore Emma Smith’s appearance as Cal’s libero in both matches, a switch from senior Jessica Gaffney. Smith contributed 22 digs against Arizona State and 12 against Arizona.

The Bears’ 14 blocks against Arizona also played an important role in the team’s victory.

“When we serve and pass well, it’s really hard for other teams to get in our way, (but) when we were out of system, it’s harder to get kills,” Annevelink said. “We still battled and still fought to stay in it, but we cleaned up (our passing) a lot for the fifth set.”

While the Bears started strong the first two sets, the Wildcats took the third and fourth with renewed determination. Arizona’s Kendra Dahlke led her team with 19 kills and middle blocker Candice Denny had an overall kill percentage of .500 in the match.

“Pac-12 teams don’t want to lose three straight,” McShane said. “I think the biggest deal there was Arizona started fighting a lot harder. I don’t think we got worse. … It was more a factor of Arizona just playing a lot better.”

In both of the weekend’s matches, the Bears put forth dedication and passion that showed they had learned from their losses and were more than eager to move past them.

“On one of our scrap plays, we got the ball up, and I ended up getting set by (Dempi),” Annevelink said. “She kind of set me outside the antenna, but I was still able to get my feet there and still play it over. It is really, really cool to see our team fight for plays and fight for points. When we get those balls up and get them over that’s putting the pressure on the other team.”

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