Cal volleyball finishes season making program history

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If Cal volleyball’s 2018 season could be summed up in one word, it would be “upset.” Weekend after weekend, the Bears toppled ranked and unranked conference opponents to the surprise of many. While folks thought Jennifer Dorr’s first year as Cal head coach would be one that would set up future squads for success, they were only partly right — the Bears’ 2018 lineup found success in itself.

Cal kicked off the season with expected home wins to take the Cal Molten Classic title. In that event, the Bears ran a 6-2 with sophomore Isabel Potter and freshman Jade Blevins setting. Sophomore Preslie Anderson and freshman Bella Bergmark began as the middle blocking pair, but after seven matches, Dorr replaced Bergmark with redshirt freshman Lauren Forte.

That decision was critical for the Bears’ success. Anderson and Forte proved themselves to be among the best middle blockers in the conference, and it certainly was apparent in Cal’s play. Both finished the year in fourth place on a Pac-12 leaderboard — Anderson for hitting percentage and Forte for blocks per set.

The middles’ undeniable strength comes a year after Cal’s offense, under then-head coach Matt McShane, sent nearly every ball to the outside hitter. Although sophomore Mima Mirkovic and former star Christine Alftin were powerful at the pins, the Bears offense was far too predictable to win matches against top-tier teams.

“We were able to be much more efficient with our middle attacks than we were compared to the prior season,” Dorr said.

With Mirkovic and junior Bailee Huizenga at the pins this season, Dorr tried to find another permanent hitter as the year progressed, toggling through senior Carmen Annevelink — who played at the slot last year — redshirt junior Savannah Rennie and freshman Makana Meyer. Eventually, the coaching staff inserted junior Maddie Haynes, who hadn’t seen consistent time on the court in the past two seasons.

Although defensive specialist Emma Smith replaced Haynes in the back row, 6’4” Haynes positively impacted the 2018 squad in the front row with her 191 kills and ability to put up a strong block.

“Definitely defensively, our blocking was much improved this season, and that was a big factor for us,” Dorr said.

Leading the back row, redshirt sophomore Kat Knop donned the libero jersey for most of the season and totaled 337 digs. Last season, Knop saw some time on the court as McShane cycled through new liberos, match by match. The Bears needed a more consistent and reliable presence, which Knop brought to the team this season.

The team’s conference play started off on a rough note, as the Bears suffered five consecutive losses. Three of the five matches were five-setters, too, making it all the more bitter while also promising.

In the Bears’ first match against UCLA at home, Cal took the first two sets, surprising everyone in Haas Pavilion. Although the Bears surrendered the remaining three sets to the then-ranked Bruins, the match was pivotal in showcasing Cal’s ability.

Cal claimed its first Pac-12 win over Utah in five sets, making history for the young team. Since that weekend in Utah, the Bears went on to beat one of their two weekly opponents for the remainder of the season, until the final week.

“When you start to beat teams that you haven’t beaten before, it starts to give you that confidence and motivation to continue on, even when it’s difficult and you’re tired and sore,” Dorr said. “There were a lot of program-history-making moments that we hadn’t had in quite a few years.”

Cal ended the season sweeping Utah, Washington State and Oregon State and notching one three-set victory over UCLA. Although Cal’s 15-16, 7-13 record does not overly impress on paper, the Bears certainly improved upon their 2017 season (13-18, 4-16).

While the Bears aren’t at NCAA Tournament level just yet, they are certainly on their way. As the Pac-12 continues to grow stronger, Cal’s 15 wins and seven conference victories are the most the program has had since 2013, and the Bears’ three league sweeps are the most Cal has seen since 2011.

“To keep believing, to be resilient, to be comfortable being uncomfortable — all those things that we talked about all year, we made progress in all of those areas,” Dorr said. “We’re still on our journey. It might be the end of the 2018 season, but everything we accomplished this season is just part of our journey going into the next season.”

Surina Khurana covers volleyball. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @surina_k.