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Awarding Golden Medals to the Cal Fall Olympic sports athletes and teams

This post is coming a few weeks early this year...unfortunately.

Cal sophomore Mima Mirkovic is my winner for best female athlete for the fall of 2018.
Cal Volleyball Twitter

No.1 Cal Men’s Swimming (favorite to win Cal’s next team national championship?) and No.5 Women’s Swimming are racing against a pretty stacked field (host Georgia, Michigan, Virginia, and the UCLA women - since they don’t have men’s swimming) in the Georgia Fall Invitational this weekend. That should be the main topic of recap next Friday.

For this week...

It is that time again, when I singlehandedly (because it is easier this way) bestow these virtual medals to the best of Cal Olympic sports each season. While the teams have underachieved in the fall of 2018, Cal student-athletes still battled hard all year long. During the fall, we have had Cal Women’s Soccer, Men’s Soccer, Men’s Water Polo, Field Hockey, Men’s Cross Country, and Women’s Cross Country in action. Here are my picks for the top 3 (AKA Gold, Silver, and Bronze) of the top athletes (of each sex), newcomers, teams, and moments of Fall 2018 in Cal Olympic Sports.

Best Male Athletes

All 3 of my choices are seniors who closed out their Cal career in style. They will all be missed in their respective sports in 2019.

Gold - Garrett Corcoran, Cal Cross Country

Corcoran is the only Cal Fall Olympic sports athlete to make the NCAA postseason. He qualified for the NCAA Cross Country Championship as an individual for the 2nd straight year after making it with the team in his first two years. In fact, Corcoran became the first Cal male runner to make 4 consecutive NCAA Cross Country Championship.

His 153rd finish at the national championship is mildly disappointing because I thought he had a great shot at cracking the top 100. To get to the NCAA championship, Corcoran finished a very impressive 6th in the West Regional.

Silver (tie) -

Shinya Kadono, Cal Soccer

Kadono had a team leading 12 goals (no one else got more than 3) and 26 points (no one else got more than 7) for the Golden Bears in 2018 - one of the best scoring season in Cal history. Kadono became the first Cal Bears to lead the Pac* in both goals and points since Andrew Wiedeman in 2008.

Not too surprisingly, Kadono earned first team all Pac-12 honor. A late bloomer who seemingly came out of nowhere to lead the team in goals in 2017, Kadono finished his Cal career with 20 goals.

*Technically, Stanford’s season is not quite over yet as they seek a four-peat. Stanford Zach Ryan currently has 9 goals and 21 points.

Johnny Hooper, Cal Water Polo

A prolific scorer for all 4 years of his Cal career, Johnny Hooper had a team best 49 goals for Cal Men’s Water Polo this season, despite missing some early season matches, where he could have really pad his stats, to play with Team USA. Hooper earned MPSF first team honor, the only Cal Bear to earn that this season. Hooper should be a mainstay on the US National Team and be a future Calympian.

Best Female Athletes

All 3 of my female athlete choices should be back, hopefully better than ever, next year for their respective Golden Bears squads.

Gold - Mima Mirkovic, Cal Volleyball

Cal sophomore Mima Mirkovic is a budding superstar for the Golden Bears in both indoor and beach volleyball. The slightly undersized (5’11”) outside hitter plays a great all-around game. She lead the Bears in both kills (405) and digs (359) to go with 29 aces (2nd on the team).

Mirkovic is the go-to player with the set/match on the line for Cal Volleyball team that took a big step forward in 2018. Mirkovic played in every match for the 2nd consecutive season although she did not start one match for some reason. Mirkovic is that pivotal six-rotation outside hitter for the Golden Bears that is in every play of every match. She posted 15 double-doubles on the year and earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention honor.

Silver - Megan Rodgers, Cal Field Hockey

For the second consecutive year, Cal sophomore striker Megan Rodgers led the Bears in goals. With a team high 13 goals and 30 points (she also has 4 assists), Rodgers now has 30 career goal to be in the top 10 list for goal in Cal Field Hockey program history with two more years to go.

Rodgers is the lone Cal Bear to earn America East first team honor. She is also named to the All-West Region First team.

Bronze - Abi Kim, Cal Soccer

The Cal junior followed up a summer playing with the USWNT U-20 team in the U-20 Women’s World Cup to post a team high 6 goals and 13 points, while earning a 3rd team all Pac-12 honor. Yes, her goal output was one less than her sophomore campaign, but Kim is still the focal point of the Cal offense.

Best Newcomers

Across all of the sports, Cal attracts some of the best student-athletes in the country. While the teams did not have that much overall success, plenty of valuable playing time went to freshmen that will hopefully pay off in future seasons. Here are some of the new names to get to know.

Gold - Lauren Forte, Cal Volleyball

The redshirt freshman really took over the middle blocking role for Cal Volleyball few weeks into Pac-12 play. Perhaps not coincidentally, Golden Bears start to upset ranked opponents.

Forte is 5th on the team with 161 kills on a hitting percentage of 0.321. She also has 108 blocks to lead the team, despite playing in only 23 of the matches.

Silver - JJ Foe Nuphaus, Cal Men’s Soccer

The top freshman of a solid class, JJ Foe Nuphaus came through for the Golden Bears against rival Stanford (see below) for his first collegiate goal. The defender played the 5th highest minute total on the squad.

Bronze (tie) - Amanda Zodikoff and Olivia Sekany, Cal Women’s Soccer

Olivia Sekany (middle) and Amanda Zodikoff (right) shared the goalkeeping void left by the graduation of Emily Boyd. They have had an up-and-down season as a whole but also played it with an inexperienced backline in front of them. Sekany made 26 saves in 908 minutes. Zodikoff made 37 saves in 776 minutes. Sekany, the redshirt freshman, started the year as the main keeper for the Bears. Zodikoff came on toward the end of the non-conference season. Both saw playing time during the Pac-12 season which hopefully will pay off in the future.

It’s actually an interesting question whether either of these two players will get any start in 2019 and beyond as Cal signed a top goalkeeper recruit in Angelina Anderson who is on the US’s U-17 team. Anderson continues the recent line of great Cal goalkeeper from Emily Kruger to Emily Boyd.

Best Teams

In a season when all Cal squads were kept off their respective postseason field, this was some tough choices that required judging several “moral victories”.

Gold - Cal Volleyball (15-16, 7-13 in Pac-12)

With Jennifer Dorr taking over the team as the new head coach, Cal Volleyball nearly returned to the NCAA postseason. After starting the conference play with 3 5-set losses, Golden Bears finally broke through to split the rest of their Pac-12 play with the exception of the last weekend. In the process, Bears defeated several top 25 ranked squads.

Mima Mirkovic continued her strong play from her freshman year. While freshman Jade Blevins had some brilliant runs as the co-setter, the team was only able to finish wins after they switched to a single setter offense, ran by sophomore Isabel Potter. For the year, Bears got strong play in the middle from Preslie Anderson and Lauren Forte. Mirkovic, Anderson, and Forte were all named to the All Pac-12 honorable mention list.

Dorr taking over for the dismissed Matt McShane was a last minute decision for the program. Cal will now open the offseason with a formal search for possibly a new head coach. Dorr has definitely done enough to possibly retain this job, but the Cal program may also attract head coaches with a lot more experiences. It might be a very interesting offseason for the program.

Silver - Cal Men’s Water Polo (18-6, 1-2 in MPSF)

Head coach Kirk Everist’s squad is a perennial national championship contender. Despite having to replace Pete Cutino award winner Luca Cupido (particularly defensively) and yet another goal keeper in Kevin Le Vine (now an assistant coach at George Washington University), Golden Bears had another strong year - particularly late in the year when they posted wins over both UCLA and USC.

Johnny Hooper seamlessly stepped into Cupido’s vacated role as the leading scorer for the Bears. Junior Bernardo Carelli was solid inside the cage for the Bears. Greek senior duo of Vassilis Tzavaras and Oddysseas Masmanidis both played important parts in the team’s success.

Unfortunately, a pair of very close losses to rival Stanford in both the Big Splash and the MPSF Championship match sealed the fate of the Bears being left out of the small NCAA championship field. For next year, expect Turkish junior Safak Simsek to lead the Bears in scoring in his senior campaign. Ultimately, the Bears’ success will depend on young players this year stepping up next year.

Bronze - Cal Field Hockey (5-12, 2-4 in America East)

They may have finished the season 5-12, but Cal Field Hockey at one point (after beating Yale to improve to 3-3) were ranked 25th in the country. Despite the losing record, Cal Field Hockey played many ranked opponents very tough, all year long. Outside of their 2 losses to Pacific, all other teams that beat the Bears were ranked in the top 25. Bears were clearly outclassed against top 5 squads in North Carolina and Maryland, but managed to battle hard against all the other ranked teams, often while on the road. Bears pushed No.8 Boston College and No.11 Louisville to OT.

Head coach Shellie Onstead’s squad was battle hardened, but only managed two close 2-3 losses to rival Stanford. The season came to an end when the Bears could not hold on to a late lead against Maine in the conference tournament first round. Maine scored the golden goal in OT to end the Bears’ season.

The still young team will have enough key players back in 2019 to show that the program can return to the 25 ranking for the full year. The affiliation between Cal, Stanford, UC Davis, and Pacific with America East ends this year. It would be interesting to see with what conference, the Golden Bears and their west coast field hockey frenemies will join for the 2019 season.

Best Moments

This category is typically given to the best game/match of the year. However, in the past, we have also awarded the honor to some other special moments such as Cal Volleyball player Savannah Rennie getting back on the court after her liver transplant and then cancer battle.

Gold - Cal Men’s Soccer beats No.6 Stanford on the road

Knowing that it was the end of their season regardless of the result, Cal Men’s Soccer ended the year on a high note. In the road leg of the annual Bay Area Derby against rival Stanford, who had somehow became 3x defending champs (it’s tough for me to type that phrase out), the Bears fought hard and kept No.6 Cardinal off the scoreboard.

Late in a scoreless match, Cal freshman Nuphaus came through with a splendid header to put the Bears ahead.

5 minutes of solid defense later, the Golden Bears are celebrating their first win over Stanford since 2013 (Bears went 0-9-1 in 10 matches since that last victory). Bears showed that they are good enough to be a playoff team late in the year. Unfortunately, some early season injury turned into several close one goal losses. Bears ended the year with a 7-9-2 record.

Silver - Cal Volleyball sweeps No.16 Washington State in season series

There were some choices here since Cal Volleyball had a number of Top 25 upset wins in 2018. In a typical year, the 3 game sweep of UCLA at Westwood would have been the choice. However, the Bruins (ranked in the top 25 when they lost to the Bears) eventually had a losing record to miss out on the postseason. Instead, the top team by season ending result that the Golden Bears beat was non-traditional volleyball powerhouse in Washington State, who earned the 16th seed in the NCAA tournament.

The first win was also a big one in turning around the outlook of the season. Cal superstar Mima Mirkovic had several swings in the match point but earned it with a solo block.

The 2nd win a month later saw the Bears keeping alive their slim shot at the postseason while earning this victory on the road. Bears beat a squad that had a 11th best RPI.

These wins together showed that the Cal Volleyball squad is good enough to make the postseason. While that feat was not accomplished in 2018, the returning of the core of this team should mean that a return to postseason in 2019 is the expectation.

Bronze - Cal Men’s Water Polo beats USC in MPSF semifinal

This victory was a huge one that at the time made it feel like that the California Golden Bears will be dancing in the NCAA postseason yet again. In a back and forth match with the season on the line essentially, Bears found themselves down by 3 goals in the 2nd half. Nonetheless, the Bears do not quit and fought back. With seconds left in regulation, junior Safak Simsek scored the game winner.

Unfortunately, Cal’s equally close loss in the MPSF final against Stanford meant that the committee gets to decide Cal’s fate. They opt to include USC over the Golden Bears and prematurely ended the Cal season.

Honorable Mentions

On the heel of Cal Rugby’s Robert Paylor defying the odds to walk again after his spinal cord injury, Cal Football’s Chris Fatilua (who never played for the Bears otherwise this moment would probably have been ranked higher) also was able to overcome his spinal cord injury suffered before he had come to Cal. He certainly embodied that Golden Bears never quit spirit.

Also worthy of a mention, Robert Paylor got a great reception at the Cal-Oregon football game. Paylor returned to campus to resume his education after one arduous year in Colorado rehabbing.

Well, those are my picks for Cal Olympic Sports for the Fall of 2018. Let me know if I missed anything in the comment section below.