Cal volleyball’s 2017 season proved that not all stories have happy endings. But after finishing 13-18, the Bears worked through the offseason on defense and blocking, setting themselves up to write a new story for their 2018 season.
This weekend marks the opening pages of Cal’s newest tale. The Bears will host Chicago State, Rutgers and Colgate at Haas Pavilion for their annual Cal Molten Classic to be held Aug. 24-25.
Although Cal only returns two seniors, outside hitter Carmen Annevelink and setter Mackenzie Albrecht, their leadership and presence on the court will be a primary component of the team’s success this season. Annevelink and Albrecht will serve as the team’s captains along with junior Bailee Huizenga.
The Bears will likely run a 6-2, with both Albrecht and sophomore Isabel Potter setting. Head coach Jennifer Dorr says they can switch into a 5-1 lineup as needed, depending on their opponent and performance.
No matter who was setting, Annevelink demonstrated her versatility and accuracy last season, leading the Bears with the highest kill percentage — .228 — from a regular hitter. Cal’s younger players will be looking to learn from Annevelink as they find more accuracy in their swings this season.
Without former captain Christine Alftin, the Bears will likely feature sophomore Mima Mirkovic and either Huizenga or junior Maddie Haynes as their starting outside hitters on the left pin. Mirkovic, who had a strong freshman season as an all-around player, led the team with 342 digs last season.
Although Haynes only saw the court intermittently last season and struggled with a few injuries, she demonstrated her depth, playing outside, opposite and middle — wherever she was needed. This season, Haynes will likely have a more prominent role on the court that goes well beyond her title as the Bears’ most spirited on the sidelines.
Rounding out the offensive lineup, sophomore Preslie Anderson is the only returning starter in the middle blocker position. Her counterpart will be redshirt junior Savannah Rennie, sophomore Lauren Forte or freshman Bella Bergmark. The Bears may have to toggle around with their options as the season opens to find who works best in the lineup.
“For some positions, there are some locks, and for a couple of others there’s not because of the competition,” Dorr said. “I’d much rather have that than have it be because of injuries.”
While Cal’s offense appears somewhat nailed down, its defense is certainly up in the air. Every few matches last season, the Bears started a different libero. From graduated Jessica Gaffney to Alftin to junior Emma Smith to sophomore Kat Knop, the coaching staff churned through an array of defensive specialists.
It appeared as though the Bears never found a perfect click or natural rhythm, though the team was also grappling with a number of injuries. With a currently healthy roster and a strong freshman class, the Bears have a multitude of options for who takes the court.
“I hope to see a couple of different lineups, but I also hope to settle into a routine, so we’ll just see how that plays out over the weekend,” Dorr said.
Whether it’s Smith or Knop who starts as libero, the other will surely serve the team as a defensive specialist. In addition to the new freshman faces, junior transfer and All-Coast Conference selection Morgan Wright will be a helpful asset.
This weekend will be a helpful test for the Bears to recognize what their biggest weaknesses are early, allowing them to work toward shaping the best version of themselves before encountering their big Pac-12 competitors.
Cal will first face Chicago State on Friday morning before playing Rutgers later that evening. The Bears will then play Colgate on Saturday afternoon. Cal’s greatest challenge in all three of the matches will be playing a team different from its own.
“It’s a new team on the other side of the net,” Dorr said. “We’ve been battling against ourselves for two weeks now, and we know ourselves really well. It will be exciting and also nerve-wracking to play against an opponent that does stuff a little bit different — maybe not as well and also better than us.”
While this weekend will be telling of the Bears’ season ahead, it’s merely the introduction to a much larger story. The climax is yet to come.
Surina Khurana covers volleyball. Contact her at [email protected].