Cal volleyball (13-18, 4-16) ended its 2017 season with a .419 winning percentage. Though the figure is seemingly grim, it’s an accomplishment for the program, which hasn’t seen such success since before 2014. Though the Bears fell short of their goal to make the NCAA tournament, they demonstrated that the program is moving forward once again.
“There were definitely a lot of meetings with the coaching staff just running through various lineups and all the different ways we could help our chances of winning given the limitations that we had due to injury,” said interim head coach Jennifer Dorr. “The team (was) resilient and adaptable, and players (were) looking to step in and help wherever they could.
Cal started the season on a high note, winning 9 of its first 10 matches. As conference play began, though, the Bears dropped their first few matches to the Pac-12 beasts Stanford and Utah. Victories against Arizona and Arizona State at home were big confidence-boosters, as Cal demonstrated similar strength to what it had possessed in the preseason.
After dropping all four of their string of away matches, the Bears had no choice but to succeed when they returned home. While they beat Washington State, an injury in the match against the Cougars paired with an injury coming against Washington altered the course of the remainder of the season.
Injuries to the two captains, junior Mackenzie Albrecht and senior Christine Alftin, sent them to the bench for the second half of conference play. While Alftin, a starting outside hitter, attempted to push through her ankle injury (playing back row and not hitting), she ultimately was forced to join Albrecht in leading her team from the sideline.
“I could semi-push off (my ankle), but it was still like 30 percent,” Alftin said. “And then the third time I tried playing, I had to call myself out because my 30 or 40 percent is no better than someone else’s 100 percent. At that point, it came to just making a decision for the team.”
From the bench, the captains attempted to find different ways to be effective leaders, taking a role in timeouts and yelling out advice to their teammates in the middle of plays.
“With that injury — it just gave me an opportunity to help lead from the bench and help the other setters, who are both freshmen, get accommodated with the speed of the game,” Albrecht said.
After what seemed like the Bears’ worst nightmare, they lost 91 of their remaining 10 matches, but the captains say the morale remained high. While Cal was not able to get the job done, it came up close within sets, refusing to accept defeat before the final whistle blew.
With veteran positions to fill, several players came onto the court with less game experience. Freshman outside hitter Mima Mirkovic was forced to step up and take a leadership role, despite her recent addition to the team.
“For the first half of the season I was really looking up to (Alftin) and (Albrecht),” Mirkovic said. “When they got injured and couldn’t play, I ended up being floor captain, and that was really surreal for me. … Filling in that role was crazy, fun, and I’m really excited to be an even better leader in the upcoming years.”
Another one of the team’s goals was to play for each other, something Mirkovic said they did consistently throughout the season and that allowed them to stay together even through the hard times.
Off the court, Alftin and Albrecht fostered a positive environment that allowed the team to maintain a can-do mentality, despite the significant setbacks. Dorr said the players’ willingness to help their team however they could was critical.
“We had a couple players playing out of position, and they did it without complaining, and that is something we are really grateful as a coaching staff to have,” Dorr said.