Nobody realized a fork in the road was just beyond the horizon that October night.
The Mater Dei girls’ volleyball team was hosting JSerra, a team that had never defeated the Monarchs since the Trinity League was formed prior to the 2006-07 school year.
Mater Dei started out strong against the Lions, winning the first two games, but gradually began to fray, look out of sync and appear uncertain. JSerra took advantage and won the last three games to steal the victory and leave Mater Dei coach Dan O’Dell staring at the ceiling for answers.
“That JSerra loss was a big shocker,” he says.
O’Dell decided he could either allow his team use their inexperience as an excuse for their downward spiral from the two seasons before, when the Monarchs reached the CIF-SS Division I-AA and SoCal Regional finals, or see if a fresh face could steer them back onto an upward plain.
O’Dell decided to make the delicate move of calling up talented freshman Brielle Mullally from the junior varsity squad, which meant senior McKenna Bova would have to relinquish a role she shared with fellow team captain Angela Gonzalez.
“She was playing really well on the JV team and I thought she deserved a chance for a starting spot with the varsity group,” O’Dell says of Mullally.
O’Dell was confident the switch might turn things around for the Monarchs, but the move could also turn the seniors against him.
“I was worried about the potential backfire,” he says.
Fortunately, the lineup change made a difference for the Monarchs, who found their rhythm with the 6-foot Mullally engineering the offense. That was enough for the team to make another deep run in the Southern Section playoffs, advancing to the Division I-AA finals for a third straight year after toppling second-seeded Great Oak in the semifinals on Nov. 17.
Out of the spotlight, Bova made the decision much easier by greeting the lineup change with acceptance and support.
“I haven’t heard her complain once,” O’Dell says.
O’Dell didn’t immediately play Mullally in the match following her promotion and then waited halfway through the next match against Orange Lutheran before inserting her in the rotation. The positive results were instantaneous.
“Once I put her in, things started to click for the team,” O’Dell says. “Putting in a setter, you don’t necessarily see the results on a setter’s numbers. You see the result in the other hitters improving.”
Suddenly, the Monarchs were scoring more consistently in transition, their pinpoint passes were being rewarded with timely, accurate sets and outside hitters like Rachel Ritchie and Makena Martin were putting away spikes with much more ease and efficiency.
“It was a huge impact,” O’Dell says.
Meanwhile, Bova was the first off the bench to greet players when they came out of the game or during a timeout.
“Having that high level of character has really allowed the team to not have the chemistry issues we could have had,” O’Dell says. “[Bova] could have very easily been unhappy, complained to her teammates, been negative about it and, since she handled it so well, it’s allowed the team to kind of stick with the freshman and move on.”
With the fork in the road behind them, the Monarchs were now speeding back to the top.