How good is Cal freshman setter Alyssa Jensen?
She was a member of the Pac-12 All-Star team without even playing in the Pac-12 yet.
OK, so maybe there were some extenuating circumstances, but the Bears’ setter of the future held her own during the team’s recent tour of China. Due to a last-minute injury and the fact that she already had a passport in hand, Jensen was a late selection to the team and accompanied the Pac-12 All-Stars to the Pacific Rim for a 12-day trip that featured six matches against elite competition.
Jensen enrolled at Cal in the spring but has yet to play a collegiate match.
“Not too many people in my shoes get to do that,” said Jensen, a former Gatorade Player of the Year in Missouri. “Going in I wasn’t really expecting much playing time because I haven’t even played a college match and I wasn’t chosen originally to go with this team. It was a learning experience.”
Jensen estimated she played about 30 percent of the team’s matches, backing up AVCA First Team All-American Lauren Plum of Oregon. The All-Stars faced some of the best teams in China, including one squad that featured two Olympians.
“I played against some of the best players in the world and I think that was the best part for me,” Jensen said. “I got to play with girls on the Pac-12 team that are amazing players. It was fun. I think I was really able to play my game. I wasn’t really intimidated by anything. I was in my own element.”
Jensen’s Asian excursion is even more significant when you consider the events leading up to the team’s departure for Shanghai. Two days before the squad gathered in Los Angeles for a couple of practices and then to fly out together, Jensen had no idea she’d be going.
But when it was determined the team would need another setter because of an injury, Pac-12 assistant commissioner Heather Perry contacted all of the conference’s coaches to see if there was an athlete available to make the trip. Cal coach Rich Feller first called returning starter Joan Caloiaro, but she didn’t have a passport. Feller’s next call was to Jensen.
“Joan thought it was a great idea but couldn’t get ahold of a passport,” Feller said. “I called Alyssa and her family happened to go on vacation last year to Mexico, so she had a passport. She needed about an hour to talk it over with her family and make sure this was going to work.”
Truth be told, it wasn’t the best timing for Jensen, who was back in her hometown of Fenton, MO for summer break. That morning, fellow freshman Jenelle Jordan flew in from her hometown of Houston to visit.
“I felt so bad just leaving Jenelle there with my parents,” Jensen said.
Jensen was on a plane back to the Bay Area the next day. She gathered her volleyball gear and went to the Chinese consulate in San Francisco to obtain a visa. After spending the night at teammate’s Christina Higgins’ place, she flew to Los Angeles the next day. She went straight from LAX to Loyola Marymount University, where the All-Star team was already halfway through its first practice together.
The next evening, Jensen was on her way to China.
“I don’t think it actually hit me that I was going to China until I came home from China,” Jensen said. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I just knew I was going to China.”
Not only did Jensen get to face top-level competition on the other side of the net, she practiced and played with some of the best volleyball talent the Pac-12 has to offer. Along with Plum, Oregon’s Liz Brenner and USC’s Natalie Hagglund were All-Americans last season. Stanford’s Inky Ajanaku and
Arizona State’s Macey Gardner were All-Pac-12 selections.
Off the court, Jensen and her all-star teammates were able to soak in some Chinese history, visiting such historical sites as Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. Jensen signed the Great Wall, writing “Alyssa Jensen, Cal Volleyball.”
“The best was the Great Wall,” Jensen said. “You always see the pictures. To be walking on it and to know other people were fighting for their country on this ground, it was surreal.”
The team flew back to Los Angeles together at the end of the tour before going their separate ways. Jensen returned home to Fenton for about a week before coming back to Berkeley for the rest of the summer.
“I remember landing in Los Angeles and just sitting there thinking, ‘I was just in China’,” she said. “It was crazy to think I had just played against and with some of the best players in the world. That’s what really shocked me the most – that a person my age actually got to experience that. It just gave me a realization that life can change in a split-second. You just have to go with it because you can experience some of the best things.”
The China trip should help Jensen going forward. The experience she gained, coupled with the fact that she has been enrolled at Cal since January and went through spring workouts with the team, will make her an unordinary freshman this fall.
“If she can draw from the experience, it will help tremendously,” Feller said. “The pressure is totally different. You’re away from home. There are a lot of hostile fans rooting against you and you’re playing against teams that are really, really good. That prepares you for a lot of different situations.”