Every athlete knows what first game jitters are. Months in the off-season of nothing but preparation and anticipation, all leading up to a single moment of relief: the first serve. And once No. 11 Cal beach volleyball hit the sand against No. 14 GCU on Saturday, it was clear that even the Bears had their own bout with athlete’s nerves.
It wasn’t until about an hour into the match that the fourth pair secured the Golden Bears their first pair win of the year, as Madison Dueck and Alexia Inman won 21-15, 21-18. Fans wouldn’t see another victory until the next game against St. Mary’s, however, as the Bears fell 4-1 in the season’s opening match. And while triumph came much later, it turned out to be much sweeter.
Following GCU’s rout of the Bears, the favor was returned, as Cal came out victorious in an emphatic and much-needed way against St. Mary’s, completing a 5-0 shutout. Acting head coach Derek Olson, who spent his first weekend at that position for the opening matches, cited the time between games as a reason for their success.
“If we’re going to take a loss, we’re going to take it early and learn from it,” Olson said. This sentiment of bouncing back in a big way from early adversity echoes the type of mindset that Dueck credited her coaching staff with before the season started. Acknowledging the different mentality with which they have approached this season, Dueck made her stance prior to the game known in a blog post.
“It’s okay to get worse at something before it gets better,” Dueck said. To acknowledge this is one thing, but acting on it, as the Bears did emphatically, shows strength of character.
After seeing how the second match of the day turned out against St. Mary’s, it’s clear that character is something that this Bears squad doesn’t lack. There is no coincidence that there was a difference in the approach that Dueck took in these two matches, having secured pair wins alongside her partner Inman in both. In doing so, Dueck made her quote come to life, and Olson agrees that a change in mindset is necessary for the team’s success.
“We know we have to focus a lot on being comfortable being the ‘hunted’ vs. the ‘hunter,’ ” Olson said. “The last couple of years we’ve taken teams by surprise, but we don’t get that luxury anymore.”
While the Bears were definitely taken by surprise in their opening match of the season, their mental toughness shined through in the following contest. And while first-game jitters were definitely a factor, it served simply as a bump in the road for a team that has bettered their mental preparation for the season. As tempting as it is to say that the opening weekend was a mixed bag, one can’t help but notice the signs of special moments to come — whether they’re on the hunt or on the run.
Sean Applegate covers beach volleyball. Contact him at