For Maia Dvoracek, 1,072 is the number of days between her last game played and the start of the 2022 season. She missed more than two years worth of time due to a knee injury and the Big West conference not having a season in 2020 due to COVID-19.
“It was hard to remember how cool it feels when all the bleachers are out when people are in the stands,” Dvoracek, a senior volleyball opposite hitter, said.
She made her return to the court on Aug. 26 against Utah State, but it wasn’t until six games later, on Sept. 16, that the team and Dvoracek secured their first win of the season.
While those early losses included matches against nationally-ranked programs, such as No. 12 UCLA, No. 13 Washington and No. 24 Pepperdine, it was a rocky start to Dvoracek’s return to the court.
Dvoracek isn’t one used to poor performances. After playing sparingly her first two seasons at Cal Poly, she had an unprecedented journey to becoming one of the best players in the nation, as she was selected to the U.S. National College team after her junior year and named an All-American.
Although the injury following her breakout season wasn’t ideal, she was able to gain some positives from it. In her time away from the sport, Dvoracek rediscovered her appreciation of playing again.
“The biggest thing that I found… was just that I got to pick the sport again,” Dvoracek said. “I got to choose it for myself and choose to be here every day and just the people I love being here for… my coaches, my teammates and all of our administrators, our trainer, everyone that supports us.”
The team that Dvoracek returned too had a new look to it, as there are only three seniors on this year’s roster, while the rest are underclassmen. The losing streak could’ve rattled the young team, but the steadiness in leadership, headed by Dvoracek, helped them find the positives in the losses.
“It’s tough for me, because at times I was just like, ‘Oh my God, I just want to go and play and win,’” senior middle blocker Meredith Phillips said. “But I think [the losing streak] made us a lot closer.”
There was a collective understanding after the loss to Washington that the team was satisfied with the way they played. According to head coach Caroline Walters, Dvoracek addressed the team about her return.
“[We] could lose every match as long as we play like that, and it would’ve been worth it for [Dvoracek] to put all the work into a comeback because of just how much she enjoyed competing with that group,” Walters said.
While they didn’t prevail in either, five-set matches against Pepperdine and Washington proved the team had potential.
“We set the schedule up to test our girls early on,” Walters said. “We want to be playing against some of the nation’s top teams relative to making the NCAA Tournament.”
Through the tough losses, the team figured out where they needed to improve. There were two technical areas that needed to get out of their funk: closing out sets and their serve-pass game.
“We saw kind of dips … at times a lot with just finishing sets,” Phillips said. “So we practiced after each weekend and were put in pressure situations, which was really helpful for us because then we were getting in those pressure situations in games.”
The work the team put in showed up in their first win of the season against Santa Clara when the Mustangs came from behind in three straight sets to win 3-0.
“[Finding] that confidence that we could come back when we’re down a few points was just kind of uplifting,” Dvoracek said. “We just needed to figure out how to close out of sets, how to finish [and] how to keep the pedal down.”
After their first win of the season, the Mustangs only lost one set in five straight games until they lost to another top Big West team in UC Santa Barbara. The team immediately bounced back, winning another five straight games, including a win over Hawaii, the defending conference champion.
Now, Dvoracek and the Mustangs sit in a tie for third place in the Big West.
As Dvoracek wraps up her last quarter at Cal Poly and as a student-athlete, her experience away from the game helped her realize there’s much more to volleyball than the wins and losses.
“The biggest thing that I want to leave at the end is the idea that you work hard and you don’t always get what you want,” Dvoracek. “But [it’s about] being there for your teammates and giving everything you have to the program as a whole so that you leave it better than how you found it.”