Robin Rostratter may be on crutches, but the impact she made Monday night was just as significant as any sprawling dig or perfect pass she could have made on the court.
Rostratter, Cal's starting libero who is out for the season with hip and back injuries, got inside the team huddle after the second set against Utah and lit into her teammates. She got into each's face, exhorting them not to let this trying season get to the brink. She was angry, passionate and inspiring.
Her teammates listened.
The Bears forged a spirited comeback, erasing a two-set deficit to beat Utah 19-25, 17-25, 25-16, 25-15, 15-13 and keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
"She's a valuable player, and having her on the bench has been hard this year," Cal senior middle hitter Shannon Hawari said. "You can just tell how much she wants it for us, how much she wants to be out there with us but can't be. Having her tell us, each person, what we need to do - it's really motivating. She put her heart out there. That's one of my seniors so it pumped me up to fight for her."
They all fought, especially freshman outside hitter Lara Vukasovic, who came into the match to begin the third set and finished with a career-high 12 kills. Cal had been blocked 13 times during the first two sets against the Utes, who entered the match tied for seventh in the country in blocks. But Utah wasn't prepared for Vukasovic, who has played on and off this season and gives the Bears a different look at 6-foot-5.
"Lara was fearless and doesn't know what it's like to play in these kind of matches and really didn't care," Cal coach Rich Feller said. "She just went out there and swung away and played like there was nothing to lose. I think that energized people. That allowed other people to free up a little bit and just relax."
Taking the cue from their freshman teammate, the rest of the Bears fell in line. Senior opposite hitter Correy Johnson got hot. Hawari started to get into the act. And after being outblocked 13-1 in the first two sets, the Bears outblocked the Utes 7-5 over the final three.
"It's always a good thing when someone can come off the bench and just be aggressive and not be scared at all," Hawari said. "Lara did an awesome job. Because she is a freshman, it kind of gets us cohesive because we have to look out for that person that's not always out there with us. We get out of our own heads a little bit and come together as a team, and that really helps us."
The win moved the Bears' overall record to 15-14 (9-10 Pac-12), meaning they are now eligible for an NCAA Tournament berth. They have a chance to further strengten their resume in their regular season finale on Friday, when they host No. 2 Stanford in the Big Spike.
"Correy said a couple of things when we were in our meeting after the second set," Hawari said. "It was an emotional moment. Some of us will never play volleyball again after these two matches, possibly. I think obviously the seniors are aware of it everyday, but reminding the younger players that we want them to fight for us and work hard for us and the team is helpful."