Cal's women's volleyball team thought the 2012 season would be a day at the beach. Instead, it turned out like a surfing accident.
The Bears were blindsided by a seemingly endless rash of injuries, a series of events that prevented them from ever finding a rhythm to the season. Despite it all, Cal still managed to qualify for its 11th straight NCAA Tournament, where it lost to North Carolina in the first round for the second straight year.
Cal finished the regular season with an overall record of 15-15, which included benchmark wins over top-10 opponents Oregon and Hawaii. It also featured heartbreaking five-set losses to top-10 opponents Washington and USC, matches in which the Bears held match points.
Overall, Cal played nine five-set matches, going 4-5. The Bears never won more than four in a row and never lost more than three in a row. Of their 10 weeks of Pac-12 Conference play, Cal split the two matches seven times.
Could have been worse. Could have been better. That was the story of this injury-ravaged season.
"It was certainly one of the most challenging seasons," said Cal coach Rich Feller, who has now completed 14 seasons in Berkeley. "Entering into it, there was so much optimism because we had a large squad with a lot of depth at every position. Then the hits kept coming. It was like there is a pretty good-sized wave coming and it knocks you sideways, and another wave is right there to knock you over backwards."
The season had some significant missteps before it ever started. Starting libero Robin Rostratter, who set Cal's single-season digs record last year with 571, suffered hip and back injuries in the offseason that ended up becoming too serious for her to play. Redshirt freshman Michelle Neumayr, projected to start at outside hitter, tore her ACL for the second straight year in the preseason and was forced to the sideline.
That meant at the very least, the Bears would have to play the season without two integral members of the team. And the loss of Rostratter was especially damaging because of the senior's leadership qualities.
But there was more. Senior opposite hitter Correy Johnson developed a stress reaction in her leg during the preseason and had to stop practicing. She missed five of Cal's first eight matches and played only partially in a couple others early on. Even when she returned to full-time status in matches, she spent much of the season sitting out portions of practice.
Then in early October, starting outside hitter and leading attacker Adrienne Gehan left the Bears' match against Oregon with a strained knee. She sat out the next three matches and played sparingly and primarily in the back row for the next four.
Throw in a beat up defensive specialist Marlee Davis, who missed a ton of practice time during the season with an assortment of injuries, and it was difficult for the Bears to ever establish any consistency during any point of the season.
"It was almost a perfect storm to make it difficult to get any traction," Feller said. "It was tough to have your season scheduled and planned and then to have a couple starters or potential starters get injured in the beginning of the year. You really have to change the way you look at everything you've done. Then to have a couple starters that were really limited early in the year, you have to change the way you practice."
The injuries forced the Bears to go with freshmen at key positions. Mary McKennon took over for Rostratter, Nikki Gombar replaced Neumayr in the back row and Lara Vukasovic started for Johnson early in the season. Vukasovic then moved to outside hitter when Gehan went down. None of those players figured to get extensive playing time when the season began. Instead, they played a lot. In fact, McKennon and Gombar played in every set of the season.
"It's not just the fact that freshmen were on the court," Feller said. "It was really people that weren't ready to take on some of those roles. We didn't have enough time. Had some of those things happened later in the year, it probably would have been better. But the fact we kept getting hit by another wave from the time we started out, it kept us going backward."
Despite the health problems, the season had some high moments. The Bears knocked off No. 6 Hawaii at the Wahine Volleyball Classic in Honolulu in the fifth match of the season. Cal stunned No. 2 Oregon on the road in a five-set thriller. And even though it turned out as a loss, the Bears may have played their best match of the season in a five-set thriller against No. 8 Washington, one in which they had match point in both the fourth and fifth set but ended up losing 17-15 in the fifth.
Cal also registered a quality win over Saint Mary's. It ended the season with a strong RPI of 39 and was one of seven Pac-12 teams to make the NCAA Tournament.
"The wins were extremely gratifying. The close losses not so much," Feller said. "It was almost salt in the wound in some ways because we really had played as well as we could play for the longest period we'd ever done it. And all it took was a few little relapses to lose the match."
There were other highlights. Senior middle hitter Kat Brown became Cal's all-time leading blocker with 509. And then there was the emergence of senior middle hitter Shannon Hawari as one of the Pac-12's best players.
Hawari, a one-time high school All-American and top-25 recruit nationally, suffered an ACL injury early in her sophomore season. She came back to start the next season and continually got better. But she took it to an elite level this season.
Despite being the focal point of Cal's offense, she still finished among the conference leaders with a .370 hitting percentage, a tremendous clip considering opposing defenses had to know what was coming. She also was one of the Pac-12's best blockers at 1.20 per set.
"It's really gratifying to see someone come through adversity like she did," Feller said. "We had high expectations for Shannon. She was fulfilling those expectations and then she goes down with the knee. She came back and worked as hard as anyone I've ever seen work. She got better and better and kind of grew into that leadership position and maturity position."
Feller is already excited about next season, and has big expectations from Gehan, now the only player left from the 2010 team that advanced to the NCAA title match. Feller said Gehan has already expressed a commitment to get in better shape next season and become the unquestioned leader of the team.
"There's only one player that was on our championship team returning and she knows now with great hindsight how difficult that was and how special that was to get there," Feller said. "We expect her to be a leader on and off the court. We have had conversations with her and she is really, really excited about taking on a much bigger role on the team. She's embracing that. I don't think she's ever embraced that before."