BERKELEY, Calif. — The other Pac-12 team in the Bay Area, the one with its fourth head coach in four years, the one that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2013, the one with no players on the conference preseason team?
Keep an eye on the Cal Bears.
Sam Crosson got the job in December, and, frankly, was way off in his early assessment of a Cal volleyball program that, from the outside looking in, appears to be on an up escalator.
“When I got here my feeling was it’s not as bad as I thought it would be,” the new coach admitted. “And that’s just brutal honesty.”
And he knows bad.
When he took over as head coach at Cal Poly in 2012, he inherited a program coming off a 3-27 season. The turnaround in San Luis Obispo — especially the past two seasons — was remarkable.
But can he make it happen at Cal?
The Bears, 15-16 last year, in 10th place at 7-13 in the Pac-12, are coming off their best season since 2013.
And in the Pac-12 preseason coaches poll, they were picked to finish tied with Washington State for eighth in the 12-team league.
“People have told us, ‘You have good outsides, you have killer lefties on the right side, you have really good middles,’ and we know we do,” Cal senior Maddie Haynes said with a laugh.
“And they say, ‘Why do you keep losing the games?’
“You know what, we know that. We know what we have to do.”
Win close matches, for one. Cal went 3-5 in five set matches last season, 1-4 in league play.
To begin with, Cal returns basically its entire roster, including its head coach.
And that’s a big part of the story.
Go back to 2016, when Rich Feller decided to retire after a 9-21 season, 3-17 in the Pac-12.
He was replaced by assistant Matt McShane, who didn’t make it to the end of the 2017 season — taking a “leave of absence” with four matches left — that saw the Bears go 13-18, 4-16.
McShane was replaced by assistant Jenn Dorr, who was named the interim head coach, a title she kept throughout the 2018 season.
And she wanted the job on a permanent basis. But while Dorr interviewed for the job and didn’t get it, Crosson, a former Cal assistant and Dorr’s friend, did.
“To me, she’s Cal volleyball,” Crosson said. “I would put Rich there because he’s been here the longest and put his mark on the program, but Jenn’s been here for all of that. She’s been here from start to finish. And she has seen the highs and the lows and is so invested emotionally and loves this place in terms of what it can do and in terms of Berkeley. It sounds corny but I’m honored that there’s a person out there who can check her ego enough to make this place great with somebody like me. I don’t think I’m the easiest person to work with.”
Dorr, who was a setter at Hawai’i and had coaching stops at Texas A&M and Georgia Tech, was the Cal director of operations in 2010, the year the Bears lost to Penn State in the NCAA championship match. The next year, Feller promoted her to assistant coach.
Crosson, who grew up in Santa Cruz, played at Pacific and coached at Santa Clara and Saint Mary’s before joining Feller’s staff in 2010. He loves to tell you that in his first three jobs, he never had to move.
And when he moved back this time, he intended for Dorr to stay.
“It’s a testament more so to Jenn than it is to me,” Crosson said. “It’s one of those relationships that was already created in 2010 and ’11, because she was the DOVO one year and then the assistant for one year. So we had a previous professional relationship.
“I move on, we keep in touch, she progresses, now she’s coaching Cal and I’m loving life. We’re winning conference titles, and SLO’s awesome and Todd (Rogers) is doing great things with the beach team and we were equals in terms of being head coaches. And I’ll never forget the phone call, when she called me and told me, ‘I’m interviewing for the job.’ And I just didn’t make the assumption that the job would even be open. I had applied for the job when they went through the process with Matt, and things worked out the way they did. I’m thankful to some degree because it kept me at Poly to be successful.”
Dorr admitted she was disappointed not to get the job and even applied for some other openings. But she and her husband John, who was an All-American swimmer at Cal, had no desire to take their young twin daughters anywhere else.
“One of the greatest things Sam could have done for me was when the team came back together in January I got to speak about the interview process, what I did and what the team did that gave me a chance to go for the position,” Dorr said.
“And then tell them what it felt like to have done everything right and given it your best and still not get the opportunity and to talk about that, because they will all face that as they go into the job world.
“They’re gonna get picked over on a job, or they’re gonna feel like they did a great job, even on a volleyball court, and still come up with a loss. You can do your best job but if the five players around you don’t, you can still lose.
“So being able to talk about it in a real-world scenario and how to bounce back from it was important. And I wanted to continue that upper trajectory that we started.”
Speaking of which, this is a team that basically returns its entire roster, brings in two freshmen, and gets a wild card in senior middle Savannah Rennie.
Start with junior Mima Mirkovic, a 5-foot-11 outside from Irvine.
She and junior middle Preslie Anderson both received Pac-12 all-conference honorable mentions last year.
Mirkovic led Cal with 405 kills last season, 3.46 per set. Next closest was Bailee Huizenga, who had 271 (2.34/set). Mirkovic had 29 aces, a team-high 359 digs (3.07/set), and 39 blocks (seven solo).
No wonder Crosson said, “She is by far our best all-around volleyball player,” although he didn’t get to coach her this spring, because Mirkovic was playing for Cal’s beach team.
Huizenga, a left-handed senior from Temecula, will be one of the right sides. She had 63 blocks, five solo.
Crosson said he favors a 5-1, but won’t rule out a 6-2. Lauren Forte, a 6-3 sophomore who touches 10-6 and made the Pac-12 all-freshman team, could see time at right side. She led the team in blocks with 82, 26 solo, and had 161 kills (1.83/set).
But she’ll also see time at middle. Anderson, a 6-2 junior from Tempe, Arizona, will be in one of those spots. She had 240 kills (2.05/set), 94 blocks (11 solo), and 16 aces.
The other middle is the X factor.
The 6-2 Rennie, who also might get time on the right, is a remarkable story. Now listed as a redshirt senior, Rennie came to Cal from Torrey Pines as one of the most sought-after middles in the country. But early in her freshman year, Rennie fell ill with congenital hepatic fibrosis with portal hypertension, which ultimately led to a liver transplant. Amazingly, she played five months later in 2016, but in 2017 sat out again, this time to receive treatment for non-Hodgkin post-transplant lymphoma.
Last year, Rennie, a fearless competitor, played in 27 sets and had 27 kills, 14 blocks, and 10 digs.
Now, completely healthy for the first time, the coaches are optimistic about her chances this season. Certainly the Rennie of old was a major factor. Now it’s a matter of getting her physicality back to top form.
Crosson said she has physical limitations because of the surgeries, but “she had a very productive spring.”
Added Dorr, “She’s never lost her intense mindset, and I think that’s what’s gotten her through all of her illnesses and recoveries and setbacks.”
There are four other seniors, Huizenga; DS Emma Smith, a product of Manhattan Beach; DS Morgan Wright, who is from Wheatland, California; and Haynes, who is from Rocklin, California.
Crosson was quite frank with them when he told the seniors in the spring, “This group of seniors is going to be known for one of two things. There are only two options. You’re either going to be known as the group that got Cal back on track, or you’re going to be known as the last group before they did.”
The 6-4 Haynes, for one, is ready. Last season she had 191 kills, (2.12/set), 10 aces, 41 blocks (six solo), and .59 digs per set.
“Everything our team has been through has brought us closer,” Haynes said.
“We got that confidence we needed,” she added. “Now we have to last longer in those five-set matches, or even take them in three.”
The team’s only freshmen will compete for the other outside spot: Deniz Milli, a 6-footer from Istanbul, Turkey, and Sydney Lilomaiava, a 6-3 product from Orange, California.
There are two setters, 5-10 sophomore Jade Blevins, and 5-9 junior Isabel Potter.
Potter, from Moline, Ill., led with 844 assists last season, 7.21 per set, and led the team with 32 aces and had 18 blocks, two solo.
Blevins, from Laguna Beach, had 413 assists, 5.36/set, and had 14 aces.
“I believe the program is in a good place and there’s finally some stability after coach Feller’s retirement,” Dorr said. “When Sam was named head coach in December of 2018 it kind of solidified that our program for the next five seasons. That’s what his first contract is for.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to stay on and see that forward progression continue.
“We’re excited to have some stability, to be able to recruit with a solid name alongside with us, because we saw what Sam did at Cal Poly in the years that he was there. He took them from the bottom to the top, he got some All-Americans, won the Big West, and it’s exciting to have someone who’s been able to do that at another program come into this program and help us get back to national prominence.”
Crosson expects nothing less.
“I said this to our A.D., I said this to the team. We talk in terms of goals. We have three goals as a program,” Crosson said.
“Graduate with a degree is No. 1.
“No. 2 is going to be compete for Pac-12 championships.
“And No. 3 is going to be win a national title.”
Nos. 2 and 3 won’t happen overnight, of course.
“The line for us for next year is make the (NCAA) tournament. I’ll be really disappointed if we don’t,” Crosson said.
“From what I’ve seen and what I think we can do, I think we’re going to feel accomplished if we do that and we’re going to be disappointed if we don’t.”