Comeback Kids: Two Mustangs Rebound from Injury, COVID for Final Seasons
Lead photos by Raymond Tran/ The Big West and Owen Main/Cal Poly Athletics.
In 2020, in the thick of their college athletics careers, volleyball player Maia Dvoracek and cross country runner Jake Ritter saw their seasons cancelled due to the pandemic. The next year, as campus settled into a new normal, they both had to sit out their seasons to recover from injuries.
But despite these obstacles, Dvoracek and Ritter persevered and cemented their legacy in Mustang Athletics.
Running into the History Books
Ritter’s early years as a Cal Poly athlete were full of enviable accomplishments and conference accolades. He won the Big West’s individual men’s cross country title in 2018 and 2019 in the 8k format and is among Cal Poly’s top 10 fastest in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter events on the track and field team.
But just as he hit his stride, the pandemic canceled the 2020 season. In 2021, he competed in just two meets before pain in his right hip forced him to see a doctor. An MRI revealed a stress reaction that could have broken his hip if he kept running.
“That wasn't something I was really expecting,” Ritter told GoPoly.com. “I knew it was a big deal, but I didn't think it would be as bad as it was."
During the longest break in his career — six weeks without running — Ritter applied for a medical redshirt to preserve one last year of eligibility. The extended timeline also enabled Ritter to complete both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in civil engineering.
Ritter’s drive to come back for his sixth and last season of cross country was two-fold, he said.
First, he wanted the chance to do something no one has ever done in the Big West: earn a third individual title in cross country.
Beyond the trophies, “it was all about the team,” he said.
Ritter wanted to be with his fellow Mustangs as they worked toward representing Cal Poly at the NCAA national championships for the first time since 2011.
"I knew I had something in me [sic] this season, but I think I would have been fine leaving that behind if it wasn't for the team,” he said. “I think just having that goal all season was really huge and brought me back."
At the Big West Championship meet Oct. 29, Ritter achieved his first goal. His conference meet record time of 23:27.4 secured his third individual title and anchored the Mustangs’ podium sweep. That day, both the men’s and women’s teams took home the conference titles for the sixth time in program history.
Two weeks later, at the NCAA Regionals in Washington, the men’s team finished in eighth place overall — their best since 2013 — with six Mustangs finishing in the top 100. Ritter notched an impressive 12th-place finish, running a personal-best 10K time of 28:43.3 to punch his ticket to the NCAA Championships.
"Honestly, that was like the second time in my life that I've almost happy cried," Ritter said. "That was one of the best moments of my life for sure."
On Nov. 19, Ritter capped off a remarkable career by placing 90th overall with a 10k time of 30:09.8 at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in Stillwater, Oklahoma. His performance represents the highest individual finisher at nationals for the Cal Poly men’s team since Phillip Reid in 2007.
“The biggest thing I've learned about myself during this last season was that I keep moving forward no matter what challenges face me and no matter what the future may look like,” said Ritter, reflecting on this season. “I am extremely excited for things to come, and I feel like I'm on a great trajectory.”
After graduating, Ritter plans to resume remote work with InfraTerra, a structural and geotechnical engineering firm. He also aims to compete in USA Track and Field events this spring to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 10K. He already qualified for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials thanks to his time in the California International Marathon on Dec. 4.
Coming Full Circle
Few Mustangs have endured the twists and turns that volleyball’s Maia Dvoracek has seen in her five years competing for Cal Poly.
She had a slow start, playing in a total of 30 sets across her first two seasons — which happened to be some of the program’s winningest years ever.
2019 was her breakout season. She played in every single set, cementing records for aces and kills. When she stepped in for injured senior Torrey Van Winden, her leadership skills blossomed. She propelled the team to national rankings, a conference title, and her own All-American honors. Her momentum seemed unstoppable.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the 2020 volleyball season. As the team regrouped for the 2021 season, Dvoracek sustained a massive knee injury, tearing multiple ligaments that required surgery and extensive rehab. She took a quarter off to maintain her eligibility, moved home to Truckee, California, to focus on recovery with the unwavering support of her parents, Tim and Pam.
Her goal: to play one last season in green and gold with her team. When she struggled to walk upstairs or ride an exercise bike, she thought of her favorite place: Cal Poly’s Mott Gym.
“Playing at home is probably the most special thing that I've ever experienced in my entire life,” Dvoracek said. “Having the band show up, having the community there to support us at every single home game … just feeling that atmosphere again with a jersey on was the biggest thing for me.”
After months of grueling therapy, Dvoracek rejoined the Mustangs and prepared for her comeback season in 2022. The Mustangs were soon tested by an intense pre-conference schedule facing a number of nationally ranked opponents.
“We had a tough preseason, but I think the group still had a lot of confidence,” Dvoracek observed. “There was never any panic. It was more just like, ‘It'll click, it'll come.’”
And the wins came, including 14 conference victories and an 8-2 record at home. Dvoracek’s offensive prowess came roaring back as she averaged 3.64 kills-per-set and recorded double-doubles in 18 matches.
With fellow seniors Avalon DeNecochea and Meredith Phillips, Dvoracek says she felt like a “grandma” of the team and frequently passed on wisdom to her teammates. She realized that success can’t be taken for granted, especially in a conference as stiff as the Big West.
“None of this is easy. It takes hard work, but it's so worth it,” she said. “Tomorrow could be the last day any of these girls step on the court, and I think I learned that and was lucky enough to come back.”
With her final season complete, the journalism major now looks ahead to a chance at an international career in Europe.
Relive Dvoracek's stellar 2019 season — and the moment she learned she had be named an All American. Don't see the video below? Watch it on YouTube.
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