Gratitude In Growing
As Cal beach volleyball enters its 10th year as a sport in 2023, a mentality that was developed early on still rings true for the program.
Grateful for everything, entitled to nothing.
The mentality was originally coined by Cal rugby head coach Jack Clark, who has shared this philosophy with several other Cal sports programs over the years. It quickly became an instrumental part of the beach volleyball program.
In 2014, Cal played 11 games on the sand almost exclusively with players from the previous season's indoor team. The following year, Meagan Owusu took charge of the program and went about starting the program from scratch, finding players from all over who would exclusively play beach. She brought in people who had played growing up; others had limited experience or just wanted to try it out. That group included a class of six freshmen - the first official recruiting class in program history.
"We were kind of a rag-tag bunch," one of the six freshmen, Teya Neff, said. "We came from different places. Some had had more of a beach background. For others, including myself, it was kind of a new thing. I had played indoor, and had an opportunity to come join the team. That first year, we didn't have much experience. It was mostly just us freshmen and a few people from the club team and the indoor team."
The team had varying levels of experience on the sand, but many were just learning the game. One of the things that was important from the beginning was to establish a culture of teamwork and gratitude.
"I think one thing that made the program really special in the early days - we really had no ego," Neff said. "We really didn't know what to expect. We were all so excited and honored to be there. We were ultimately very grateful for the chance to be a part of Cal Athletics and get to build a program from the ground up."
It wasn't easy at the beginning. The first year, players had to wear track jerseys and the team was figuring out what it needed to operate as a program. The resources were limited, but Owusu saw it as an opportunity to look at what they did have rather than what they didn't. Owusu was 25, and her only previous experience was as a volunteer coach.
"Thinking back to that first year, more than anything I am just grateful for those student-athletes," Owusu said. "We were literally building something out of nothing. There was a lot of growth from our athletes as well as me as a coach. I think we had a commitment to knowing that the time that we were putting in is for building something for the future. While we wanted to win games, we knew that everything we did was laying the foundation of Cal beach volleyball for years to come."
The foundation was built on gratitude, but also on a culture of respect and caring for each other. As a former indoor volleyball player at Cal, Owusu knew the stresses that the student-athletes were going through in trying to balance being an athlete with their social life and pursuing an education at the No.1 public university in the world.
"I remember there was a day when I went into her office and had an emotional week for a variety of reasons," Neff said. "I felt comfortable enough to go and cry in front of her and say I am not doing well. Instead of forcing me to go to practice, (Owusu) told me I should go eat a cupcake and take a nap. She valued that I needed some time to rest. I just really appreciated that. I am pretty amazed by her and how much she's grown since we started in 2014."
That's all part of building something where the players felt like they could come and play a sport they love with their best friends. The team had to deal with a lot of adversity early on, going 7-15 in Owusu's first season. As they added players to future teams, the culture was something that they wanted to maintain.
It was also important because most players at the junior level don't have much experience playing as part of a team. They play as an individual or with their partner, but they don't often play for something bigger than themselves.
"I think that original team did a very good job of buying into the concept of putting the team before yourself," Owusu said. "They competed with a jersey and a cotton T-shirt and they were grateful for what they had. They knew that the investment they put into the program wouldn't be apparent immediately, but that they were building something special, even if they didn't see the results for 10 years."
That investment in building a team with a great culture started paying off for the program in 2018, when the high school class of 2017 showed up on campus as freshmen.
"The gratitude was a huge part of the team when we got here, for sure," said Mima Mirkovic, who joined the program in 2018 and went on to become a three-time AVCA All-American. "Teya always said 'grateful for everything, entitled to nothing.' That carried on in the program throughout my five years. We don't have people setting up the nets, we don't have people cleaning up the shed, we're not being catered to. We're here to play volleyball. We're not about the fancy stuff. We can always fall back on that underdog mentality."
That mentality, along with the increase in skill, competition and resources, helped transform the program.
"The change was huge - a huge part of it was recruiting these girls who had played their whole lives and really understood the game and had gratitude for being part of a program like Cal Beach Volleyball," Neff said. "It was this year-by-year incremental growth to where senior year it just felt surreal compared to where we were that first year. I remember each year as I got older throughout the program these girls came into the program who were way better than me. They came in and were challenging and kicking us out of slots we'd been in for years. I think for those of us who were used to being a regular part of the roster, all of a sudden we have this incredible talent which fostered a sense of competition in a good way."
The 2018 team went 24-8, besting the program's win record by seven contests and entering the AVCA Coaches Poll for the first time - getting as high as No. 12. The team beat seven ranked opponents, including No. 4 USC for its first-ever top-five win. The Bears haven't been ranked lower than No. 13 in any poll since the 2018 season.
They have built on that success every season since, recording eight ranked wins and finishing 11th in 2019. The 2020 season was set to be one of the Bears' best as they opened the season 9-1, defeating No. 5 USC in the finale and rising to No. 9 in the coaches poll before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the rest of the season. The Bears finished the 2021 season 11th, but one thing still eluded the team - a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Up until 2022, the tournament only included eight teams, with the Bears barely missing out on qualifying in recent years despite being one of the best teams in the country.
This past season, the Bears set a new program record with 26 wins and took third place in the Pac-12 Tournament. They were in a familiar position for the NCAA selection show, hoping to hear their name called, this time for an expanded 16-team tournament.
One of the first names called was Cal Poly as a 12-seed. When the players heard "Cal," for a moment they thought they had qualified only to be disappointed. But minutes later, California was named on the broadcast as a No. 11 seed. It finally happened. The Bears were headed to Gulf Shores, Alabama for the NCAA Tournament.
"It just meant a lot because I've never been to the tournament," Mirkovic said. "I was proud of what I accomplished and what my team had accomplished, but I would exchange every accolade just to get a taste of the tournament because I know what it would mean for the staff, the players and Cal in general. To be that close and never make it, I was crying. We deserved it. It was really awesome to see everyone so excited and hugging. Everyone knew what it meant to me and what it meant to Meagan also."
"Getting our name called for the NCAA Tournament was a huge moment for our program," Owusu said "I've been with Cal for seven seasons and every single year, we've had this moment circled. I think it was just a really big sense of this word 'gratitude' to every single athlete that has gone through our program and committed to making it better. It's taken a lot of athletes and a lot of hard work to get to that point. I think what was really special about qualifying for NCAAs this year - the first team felt so much ownership over our qualification. That's because everything they did was building this program and they're seeing the fruits of their labor as well."
That was evident when the first class of freshmen sent a video wishing the team good luck at the NCAA Tournament. Neff, alongside her classmates Emily Shults, Bryce Bark, Mackenzie Feldman, Sammy Furlan, and Katie Regalia recorded messages of pride and gratitude for the way the program has continued to grow since they graduated.
From the first recruiting class in Cal Beach Volleyball history to the team making the first NCAA appearance in school history...
??? GO BEARS pic.twitter.com/w73wd7c99W
— Cal Beach Volleyball (@CalBeachVB) May 3, 2022
Four days after the selection show, the Bears were playing in their first NCAA Tournament dual against No. 6 LSU. The Bears won on two courts, but ultimately fell to the Tigers to see their run come to an end. Prior to the match, Ana Costa, who had been Mirkovic's partner prior to her season-ending injury, wrapped up her arm and wrote Mirkovic's number (34) on it.
"I started crying. I was just like 'That was so thoughtful and nice'," Mirkovic said. "Ana and I are so competitive. You can hear us yelling from a mile away, it's like fire and gasoline. I think for her to have that really tender moment, where she was wearing my number - she wasn't doing it to get praise. It was very genuine and said 'hey I loved playing with you and even though you're not my partner right now, you're still on the court with me.' It was a sweet and touching moment that I will remember forever."
Costa was only in her first year with the program, but the message from the first class - people Costa hadn't even met - had sunk in. The team may be better now, as it has consistently added high school All-Americans and players from the USA Development Pool. However, the ethos of the program has remained the same.
Grateful for everything, entitled to nothing.