After a yearlong wait to get back on the sand, the Cal beach volleyball squad started off the 2021 season right where it left off in 2020: dominating its competition. In two wins over Oregon and UC Davis on the Clark Kerr Sand Courts in Berkeley, the Bears proved their momentum could not be tamed.
No. 9 Cal finished the 2020 season on a nine-match winning streak that was extended to 11 this past weekend. Against Oregon on Friday morning and UC Davis on Saturday afternoon, Cal performed flawlessly by beating both teams 5-0.
While upperclassmen team leaders such as seniors Alexia Inman and Maddie Micheletti were integral in the squad’s win, underclassmen and new teammates stepped up with newfound confidence to lead the team to victory. Against Oregon and UC Davis, freshmen Brooke Buchner, Ava Mann and Maya Gessner, along with sophomore Kate Bierly, secured their first collegiate wins.
“This year our confidence is just so much higher and I think a big part of that is our freshmen stepping up and doing an amazing job of handling the pressure,” said junior Jordan Polo.
The confidence and winning demeanor of the new players were not only apparent to Polo, though. Interim head coach Derek Olson, who stepped in after former head coach Meagan Owusu stepped down, also had high praise for the young players.
“Regardless of who you are playing, the first game of your college career will get you nervous, but honestly the new players looked just as good as our returners,” Olson said.
Olson was glad to see the beach volleyball “tribe,” as Olson calls his team, relying on fundamentals and discipline to lead itself to success.
“We focused a lot on our side of the net and controlling the disciplines that enable us to use our skill set — breaking down the fundamentals and controlling what we can,” Olson said.
A part of the team’s fundamentals is the positive culture the squad embraces. Although COVID-19 restrictions kept the team apart for about 10 months, the Bears had no problem coming together on and off the court this past weekend.
“Our team culture is really excellent and it’s been a slow process the last four years since I’ve been here but on and off the court this weekend they really treated each other like family,” Olson said.
Cal will have three more chances to put that camaraderie to good use in Southern California this weekend against No. 2 UCLA on Saturday and Concordia and No. 8 LMU on Sunday.
These three matches are huge for the Bears, as they will inevitably help determine whether or not Cal will compete in the NCAA tournament, in which only the top eight teams in the nation participate. After playing two unranked teams last weekend, the Bears will have to take their game to the next level against two top-10 teams this upcoming weekend.
“I think talent wise, we are there,” Olson said. “It is going to be a battle and it is going to be hard, but our focus right now is to have a good week of practice.”
Cal is a young, burgeoning program, and many ranked teams used to underestimate its squad. But more recently, teams have begun to look at Cal as a serious threat to their success.
“Now teams hold us in respect and high regard and they want to be us. So every team will give us their best game but we’re going to give them our best game right back. So we are extremely excited for this weekend because of this,” Inman said.
While the season is just beginning for the Bears, the NCAA championship tournament is on the horizon. And even though the weekend may be an uphill battle, Cal fans should be confident that more wins are in store.
Alisa Steel covers beach volleyball. Contact her at [email protected].