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Cal Volleyball keeps finding ways to win, surges to a 1st place tie in Pac-12

Golden Bears are up to No.14 in the country via the RPI. Mima Mirkovic named National Player of the Week!

Mima Mirkovic earning one of her 37 kills on the weekend
Cal Volleyball Twitter

With a pair of 5 set wins over quality opponents from the Mountain schools this past weekend, Cal Volleyball improves to 17-1 on the season, 7-1 in Pac-12 play, which is good for a tie with Stanford for the top spot in the Pac after 4 weeks of play.

While the Golden Bears, under new head coach Sam Crosson, knew that they were going to be better this year after nearly earning a NCAA postseason spot last year, this start has surpassed all expectations. If the season ends right now, Cal will not only be back in the postseason, but can also likely be the host for the first two rounds of play as a Regional site.

Some combination of clutchness or some long overdue good luck are pivotal to the Bears’ success thus far, particularly in conference play. Bears have won all 3 matches that came down to a 5th set. However, in the matches against Washington State and Utah, Cal completely dominated the 5th set. Only in the latest match on Sunday against a winless in conference Colorado, did the Cal Bears get pushed to a potential second loss in conference play after the opening loss to rival Stanford.

Cal Bears do have a tough last leg of conference play with a trip to the LA schools coming up this weekend, before they reach the midpoint. The unbalanced schedule also means that Cal has yet to play Washington (6-2 in Pac-12), who is the only team to beat Stanford in Pac-12 play thus far; although Washington State (5-3 in Pac-12) is also no slouch.

Stanford, meanwhile, has to endure the absence of their superstar, player of the year candidate in Kathryn Plummer (match high 22 kills in the first Big Spike) who has missed all the matches since their win over Cal. Stanford has drops plenty of sets and needed a 5 set thriller, fending off a match point, on Sunday to beat Utah.

In case you missed it, here are the highlights of the Cal wins from this past weekend.

No.15 Cal 3, No.18 Utah 2 (28-26, 15-25, 25-15, 21-25, 15-6)

After the Golden Bears won a tough fought 1st set, the two sides swaps bad sets before a tighter 4th set. After the Utes pushed the Bears to a 5th set, Golden Bears use a big start in the 5th set to end this match.

Mima Mirkovic had 18 kills to lead the way. Lauren Forte added 13 kills. Maddie Haynes added 11 kills. Preslie Anderson had a team high 5 blocks. Makana Meyer, who missed some matches earlier this season, returned to the rotation as Savannah Rennie was not dressed in the team uniform on the sideline of this one (probably means that shew as not available due to an injury).

No.15 Cal 3, Colorado 2 (25-23, 25-22, 24-26, 25-27, 16-14)

Just when it appears that Cal will cruise to another 3 set win after coming from behind in each of the first two sets to win them, Colorado found a way to hold off the Bears in sets 3 and 4 (in both cases, Bears fought off numerous set points to tie the match late only to falter a few points after that). Bears even thought that they won the match in set 4 before realizing that the block landed back on their own side of the court. A key replay reversal in set 5 allowed the Bears to cut the Colorado lead from 13-9 to 12-10 and made the comeback easier.

Bears showed a lot of mental toughness in this win. Mima Mirkovic and Maddie Haynes tie for the Cal lead with 19 kills apiece (Colorado’s Justine Spann had 27 kills). Bailee Huizenga had 15 kills. Lauren Forte had 6 blocks.

For her effort, which included a scary run/dive into the tunnel to retrieve a ball on Sunday, Cal star Mima Mirkovic was named not only the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week,

but also the National Player of the Week via AVCA!

What went right for the Golden Bears in 2019 so far:

Taking the fine play of Mirkovic and the defensive effort of libero Emma Smith for granted, I would argue that the biggest difference for the Golden Bears this year has been the improvement of outside hitter Maddie Haynes as not just a reliable hitter but also a solid blocker. Showing that it’s never too late for a previous top recruit to figure things out, Haynes has had a tremendous senior season to be an asset for the Bears. Haynes is hitting 0.276 on the season (even better than Mirkovic’s 0.269) with 2.52 kills per set; she also adds 34 blocks on the season already. Haynes’ 164 kills on the season thus far has nearly match her 191 kills for the entire 2018 season. Way for the Cal senior to step up big in turning the program around!

Another reason for the Bears’ good play in 2019 is also the mental toughness of their setters in Isabel Potter and Jade Blevins to forget the previous plays when things go bad. Cal setters have been able to mostly avoid having consecutive bad plays on ensuing points so far in 2019. While both Cal setters still would make some execution mistakes during matches (particularly those annoying double touch call to lose points), they have now been able to bounce back quickly from a bad point to win a sideout on the next point.

Cal’s continuation of using the two setters along with emergence of Haynes, lefty Bailee Huizenga as the opposite, and Rennie/Meyer have eliminated any bad rotation in the lineup where the recently bad Bears squads would regularly drop several points every rotation. A small but pivotal improvement like this is enough of a difference between winning and losing close sets and matches.

While it is easy to credit new head coach Sam Crosson for a lot of this season’s success and the easy “change of mentality” for the program. I also want to applaud him for keeping last year’s interim head coach Jennifer Dorr on the Cal coaching staff. Dorr really started this transformation for the Bears last year, where the Golden Bears became a tough match yet again for almost every Pac-12 match despite few too many 5 set losses. Crosson has guided the Golden Bears to that next breakthrough by installing the tough mentality to battle hard in those tight points at the end of each set. When the Bears are playing confidently, there is no deficit that is too big for them to come back (as evident in the Colorado match when the Bears fought back to tie the match or even force set points on the two sets that they will eventually drop).

Can Cal continue this kind of great play through the second half of the season and set up an exciting last two matches (at Washington and at Stanford) for the conference title? Certainly, although the Bears may also suffer a hiccup here or there due to the random fluctuation nature of sports. Nonetheless, Cal has nearly locked up a postseason berth already. Golden Bears may still be a tier below the national championship contenders, but I doubt any of those teams will want to face the Cal Bears come this December in the postseason.

Let’s see if the Golden Bears can get through the always tough SoCal swing to close out the first half of Pac-12 play strong (and still in 1st place)! It should be two exciting matches this weekend!