There is a common phrase floating around the best-practices business world these days that says culture eats strategy for breakfast.
Accordingly, the Cal women’s team has been eating huge helpings of culture for breakfast.
New head coach Jennifer Dorr has hit the ground running since officially taking over the program this past May.
Her task is to restore the Bears to prominence after a four-year run that has seen the program fail to break .500 while registering a horrid 12-68 mark in Pac-12 Conference play. Cal’s last top-25 ranking came back in the 2011 season. A year earlier it had tied for the Pac-10 title.
“We’re revamping the culture here,” said Dorr, who starred at Hawai’i and has been part of the Bears program in a variety of capacities since 2009.
This season, Cal got off to an 8-3 start before losing its first two Pac-12 matches, opening against No. 2 Stanford before dropping a tough five-setter to Arizona State. The Bears play next on Friday when No. 18 UCLA visits Berkeley.
“We’ve taken time away from the gym to teach our players how to utilize all the resources we are given here at Cal and how to maximize those to the greatest extent so we hopefully can have an advantage,” Dorr said.
“We’ve taken a look at strength and conditioning, nutrition, recovery and sleep. We’re looking at our athletes holistically and how we can attack different parts of being an athlete so we can make everybody better. We want to be mentally and physically strong in those five-set matches and cut down on injuries throughout the season.”
That means frequent visits to Cal’s strength and conditioning coach and nutritionist, as well utilizing a sports psychologist and team-building professionals.
“They are helping us in ways we are not as skilled at as far as team-building and trust and culture and doing things the right way on a consistent basis,” said Dorr, who was an assistant to Matt McShane, who took a forced leave of absence before the end of last season and never returned. “Sometimes, it’s hard for a college student to be consistent in all areas of life because they are in college. We’re installing the importance of living an excellent athletic lifestyle.”
Cal went 13-18 overall in 2017, 4-16 in the Pac-12.
“We’ve been working on changing the team culture here,” junior outside hitter Bailee Huizenga said. “We’re making more of an effort to get to know each other. We all have started to mesh well with everybody’s different personalities. We have the same drive and the same general idea of how successful we want to be. When times get tough and we get into a struggle we know we can count on our teammates to help us stay focused and pick us up when we are struggling.”
Huizenga said assistant coach Spencer McLachlin’s father, Chris, helped the team with some bonding exercises and activities while a public-interview session with the entire team also proved to be of great benefit.
“We had eight different questions,” she said. “We scratched beneath the surface to understand where everybody came from and their background. We really got to find out who our teammates are. We dug deep with questions and got to know everybody.”
Senior outside hitter Carmen Annevelink added: “We get more in-depth with each other now. We worked on fostering trust within ourselves on and off the court. That makes a difference. We all know each person will do the job they are assigned. Building that trust off the court allows us to completely rely on them on the court. That aspect of our culture has been huge and so is having the coaching staff involved. We trust the decisions they make are for the best of the team.”
Huizenga said the dynamic with Dorr and her staff (McLachlin, Amir Lugo-Rodriguez and volunteer coach Noah Casaquit) is much different this season.
“Anyone on the team is comfortable enough to be able to come and talk to them about anything,” she said. “That’s different than past years. We’re all comfortable enough and we know they support us with anything with volleyball, school or life. They always are there to talk and give advice. It’s a lot different. The door always was open in previous years, but none of us felt comfortable to come in. Now, they tell us they are there for us if we need anything. I feel that has translated into the success we’ve had on the court.”
It also doesn’t hurt that the Bears are making strides when it comes to actual volleyball.
Sophomore setter Isabel Potter and freshman setter Jade Blevins are running a faster-paced offense, led by sophomore outside Mima Mirkovic (averaging 3.12 kills per set), Annevelink (2.49/set) and Huizenga (2.55/set). Mirkovic also leads the team in digs with 178, while junior defensive specialist Kat Knop has 113 digs.
Cal has limited opponents to a .179 hitting percentage. Redshirt-junior middle blocker Savannah Rennie, who has battled back from a liver transplant and non-Hodgkin post-transplant lymphoma that sidelined her lsinc 2016, has provided a nice boost as well. She played two sets against Stanford.
“We all have a very motivated drive where it’s an every-ball-up mentality and swing for kills mentality,” Annevelink said. “We don’t take plays off.
“In years past we didn’t have the capacity to score points in moments where we needed to. We get in trouble and it would snowball and we wouldn’t have the mental toughness to finish games out. We’d be tied 20-20 or 22-22 and then start thinking, ‘Oh, they obviously are better than us. They should win.’ That creeped into our minds. We didn’t think we could win close games. We’ve taken the steps to know that we can fight back. We have seen that resiliency. We’re able to score points even when we are down.”
Dorr said one of her major points of emphasis is simply raising the volleyball IQ in the program.
“We have really tasked the players with raising their volleyball IQ from scouting reports to the type of terminology we are using that they could go out someday and be a coach with the volleyball IQ we are giving them,” she said. “Being Cal students, most of them are not on the volleyball coaching path and are on much higher-paid paths. But it’s really important to understand the whys and hows of the game and not just go out there and do what the coach says.”
Dorr added she wants to bring Cal back to the prosperity it once enjoyed when she first joined the program as its director of operations.
“I was here when we were at the top of the conference and at the top of the top 25 and going to final fours,” she said. “I definitely would like us to get back to that. We have a long road ahead to do that. We have to start winning. We’ve changed a lot here, but we have a long way to go.
“We still make mistakes as a staff and as players. By no means are we a well-oiled machine yet, but seeing the ability of the players to buy in to what we are trying to teach them is very refreshing. It shows that people can change.”