Cal freshman Christine Alftin couldn’t have hoped for a better collegiate debut.
The reigning Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division Player of the Year out of Woodside proved she belongs on the college stage, as the Golden Bears swept through the Falcon Classic in Colorado Springs, Co. to open the season with three straight wins.
After Friday’s opening-day sweep of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Cal strong-armed Winthrop University 3-1 on Saturday then took Sunday’s tourney finale with a 3-2 win over Air Force. Alftin played a vast majority of the tournament, only coming off the floor for two plays each Friday and Sunday, and played the entirety of Saturday’s match.
“It’s nothing like I would have ever imagined in my life,” Alftin said of her first Division-I go-around. “It’s so fast and the girls are bigger, their arms are heavier. It feels like you’re getting hit by a wet ball. … I’m confident, but I didn’t think I would manage to contribute as much as I did this weekend.”
After being paced by 6-2 senior Christina Higgins — the senior led the Bears in each of their first two matches with 10 kills Friday and 15 kills Saturday — Cal showcased its depth of freshman talent Sunday. Cal’s top recruit, freshman outside hitter Ashten Gooden-Smith, tabbed a game-high 17 kills, while Alftin finished with 16 kills.
“All three teams really played their best against us,” Cal head coach Rich Feller said. “I love that kind of competition when we can come in and play teams that don’t have the press and the notoriety, but they put out the effort and make them real battles. And I think we battled every single match.”
Cal had to work through some defensive issues on the back row Sunday against Air Force and ultimately had to rally back from a 2-1 match deficit. But after buckling down on serve receives, the Cal offense found a rhythm with sophomore setter Alyssa Jensen making a statement with 58 assists throughout to lead the Bears to a 25-22, 18-25, 19-25, 25-18, 15-10 victory.
“I was really happy with the way she commanded the offense,” Feller said.
Jensen is new to the starting setter role, taking over for graduated Joan Caloiaro — cousin of three-time beach volleyball Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings. And Jensen had the new-look Bears’ offense firing like clockwork. Cal got double-figure kills nine times, from five different players, throughout the weekend tournament.
“We do have a little bit of depth, and we got to use that [Sunday] in particular,” Feller said. “If we’re in system, we’ve got middle blockers that can terminate the ball and that creates an opponent who wants to double block the middle. As soon as they start double blocking the middle, then we’ve got a big advantage on the outside. And we’ve got several hitters, including Ashten and Christine. So, that’s going to be our strength if we can stay in system.”
The height of those middle blockers is unlike any Alftin has ever shared the court with. Previous to this season, the tallest teammate with whom Alftin ever played was as an underclassman at St. Francis — before she transferred to Woodside — when the Lancers featured 6-3 Savannah Pavin. The shorter of Cal’s two first-string middle blockers, redshirt junior Lillian Schonewise, matches that height at 6-3. Croatian-born junior Lara Vukasovic is on the taller side of 6-5 and owns an advanced reach which allows her to play ever taller.
Meanwhile, Alftin is one of just two Cal players — along with Jensen — being counted upon as six-rotation players.
“She’s being asked to carry a pretty big load, and that’s a tough haul for a freshman,” Feller said. “She came and went a little bit with her game, and sometimes she got a little bit too anxious and made some unforced errors. But she brought it back under control. She’s going to learn every minute that she’s on the court.”
Sunday’s outburst from Alftin and Gooden-Smith could be the shape of things to come in future seasons for Cal. They are two of eight freshmen in this year’s mix, and were a big factor in the Bears having the ninth-ranked freshman class in the nation this season, according to PrepVolleyball.com.
“The foundation is there. The consistency will come,” Feller said. “The level of their skill in the game of volleyball and their knowledge of the college game will grow exponentially. The more time they get now, the better off they will be the next year, and the year after, and the year after; and if they play together for four years, it certainly will be a benefit.”
Cal travels to the New Mexico State Tournament on Sept. 5-6. The Golden Bears open at home Sept. 12 against University of the Pacific, 7 p.m. at Haas Pavilion.
“I’m so excited and so anxious,” Alftin said. “I’m excited to see all our fans and I’m actually excited to get to know all our fans.”