Best Male Athlete: Ivan Rackov
Because he did not win an NCAA championship ring in four years at Cal, Ivan Rackov doesn’t consider his collegiate career a success.
But his record and his past performance are both against him on that account. As the 2010 National Player of the Year and the 2010 Cutino Award recipient (think the Heisman of water polo), Rackov began this year as the best player in the country.
Within the first few matches of his senior year, the Serbian native lived up to the title. Rare was the early season tournament match in which Rackov scored fewer than three goals. By November his shots tapered off to only a couple a game as different athletes across Cal’s deep bench stepped up and found open shots. But only Rackov could preternaturally anticipate a breakaway shot in which, entirely undefended, he demolished opposing goalkeepers.
Throughout the season Rackov won the MPSF Player of the Week twice and led the conference (which translates to nation) in goals. He also paced the Bears in goals, steals and assists, eventually becoming Cal’s second-leading scorer of all time.
Alongside senior Charlie Steffens, Rackov was captain of the team this year. He took the role seriously, instilling advice and dedication in the younger players. Yet when the first whistle of every game sounded, Rackov refused to be the only leader on the team; in his opinion, every player needed to become his own leader in any given game.
The absence of a national title will forever elude a workhorse who jeopardized a spot on his national team by pursuing an education and a collegiate career in the U.S.
“I wish we could be more than just good,” Rackov lamented upon his team’s early exit at the MPSF tournament, where a semifinal loss to UCLA cost the Bears a chance at the NCAA’s.
Don’t worry, Ivan, you are.
— Annie Gerlach
Honorable Mentions: Keenan Allen/Isi Sofele
Keenan Allen is without question the Cal football team’s most talented player. Five-star potential fulfilled, he is the quarterback’s dream target, having caught over 40 percent of half-brother Zach Maynard’s 212 completions. Enjoy it while you can — he has already indicated his intentions to leave after his junior year if projected as a first-round NFL draft pick.
That said, it’s Isi Sofele who might be the most valuable Bear. The diminutive tailback has silenced doubters with near-exponential improvement, averaging 142 yards over his past four games. Listed at a generous 5-foot-8, he runs with strength and technique. With one game left, he has already surpassed Shane Vereen’s 2010 rushing total.
— Jack Wang
Best Female Athlete: Deborah Maier
On Nov. 21 during a blistery day at the NCAA Championships, senior Deborah Maier crossed the finish line for the last time as a Cal cross country runner.
Before her senior campaign, Maier was already one of the most decorated female runners in Cal history, having earned two Pac-10 first team honors and an All-American honor.
At the beginning of the 2011 season, Maier continued her success with two statement finishes, earning first at the Roy Griak Invitational and third at the prestigious Badger Invitational. As Maier’s national reputation grew, so too did the Cal’s women’s team. When midseason rankings came out, Cal was ranked 10th in the nation and riding a wave of success with Maier at its lead.
However, the team suffered a setback at the Pac-12 championships when Maier rested due to injury; the Bears suffered through one of their worst finishes of the season, seventh out of 12 teams.
Maier’s much-needed return came at the NCAA West Regionals, where she placed second and was the regional runner-up for the second year in a row. With Maier’s stellar performance throughout the season, the Bears earned their first bid to the NCAA Championships since 1988 and only their third bid ever. Maier had finally led the Cal women to the Promised Land after four years of building a program.
At Nationals, Maier finished 11th and earned her second All-American honors.
Maier pushed herself in the last 100 meters of the race, focusing not on individual accolades but rather on earning points for her team. Although those 100 meters may have represented the closing of her Cal career, Maier’s talent and national prospects leave the running world beyond the finish line still open to be explored.
— Austin Crochetiere
Honorable Mention: Tarah Murrey
In last year’s Big Spike, Tarah Murrey literally bowled over a Stanford defender with the force she packed behind a ball. This season, there weren’t quite as many fireworks, but the senior outside hitter still singlehandedly wiped the floor with the Cardinal — twice.
To say the offense ran through Murrey is a gross understatement. The 6-foot-3 attacker accounted for more than a third of Cal’s total attacks, taking more than double the number of swings than the second-leading hitter.
Murrey’s brute strength didn’t get to be on display as much this season, as the sets from inexperienced setter Elly Barrett were often erratic, forcing Murrey into tough positions. Nonetheless, the All-American posted respectable numbers, ranking sixth in the Pac-12 in kills, and remained Cal’s biggest threat.
— Christina Jones
Best Coach: Shellie Onstead
Since taking over as the Cal field hockey coach in 1995, six-time NorPac Coach of the Year Shellie Onstead has amassed an impressive career resume with a record of 203-111 that includes 11 conference titles and five NCAA Tournament appearances.
While the Bears narrowly missed out on the tournament this year, the 2011 season may go down as one of Onstead’s best achievements. A young team that went a mediocre 10-9 in 2010, Onstead and her squad came into this season as relative unknowns on the national stage. A tough early-season schedule didn’t help its chances of getting noticed.
However, after three weeks, the Bears were a surprising and flawless 6-0 with wins over Louisville, Michigan State, Northeastern and Indiana — all ranked opponents. Overall, Cal ended with a record of 16-4 — the second best finish in school history — defeating six ranked opponents along the way. Its No. 11 ranking also tied for the best in the program’s history.
More important to Bears fans was the fact that, after four consecutive years of falling to Stanford in the NorPac Tournament finals, this season Onstead’s team finally got over the hump. The team’s tough 1-0 victory at Stanford in the tournament finals gave it that signature win that symbolized the success it has achieved all season.
The future continues to look bright for Onstead going into next season. While the Bears will lose four players to graduation, the vast majority of the squad will return to build upon their 2011 success and hopefully add a sixth NCAA tournament appearance to Onstead’s resume.
— Eric Lee
Honorable Mention: Tony Sandoval
When Tony Sandoval took over the reigns of the Cal cross country program 21 years ago, he dreamed of seeing both teams qualify for Nationals in the same year, a feat never accomplished in school history.
Coach Sandoval developed both the male and female teams through strong coaching and recruiting. After having a stellar group of runners graduate last year, this year Sandoval had a women’s team that was in the midst of a 23-year NCAA drought and a men’s team in need of rebuilding.
Sandoval saw one half of his dream come true: The women’s team earned the elusive berth, but the men just barely missed out.
— Austin Crochetiere
Best Newcomer: Aleksa Saponjic
Aleksa Saponjic’s first year on the Cal men’s water polo team wasn’t spent in the shadow of his older brother, Luka. Rather, the two attackers bolstered each other with so many assists that “Saponjic to Saponjic for the goal!” became a common announcement during matches in the Spieker Aquatics pool.
The true freshman rapidly became a fixture in Cal’s starting lineup, yet he wasn’t even in America until a few weeks into the season. Saponjic spent his summer playing for the Serbian national team at the Junior World Championships in Volos, Greece. With three goals from Saponjic in the championship, the Serbian squad went on to capture the gold.
In his first collegiate game at the NorCal Invitational, Saponjic notched two goals. After more spare goals in subsequent early season tournaments, Saponjic solidified his position on the left side of the front line.
His year was quiet, yet he held his own amongst seasoned veterans such as his brother, National Player of the Year Ivan Rackov and senior Cory Nasoff. In Cal’s season finale against Stanford, Saponjic scored two consecutive points that set his team on a seven-goal tear and yielded a whopping 11-4 victory.
By the end of the season Saponjic climbed to third on Cal’s scoring charts with 30 goals in 22 matches. In comparison, Rackov, the best Cal player in years, came in fourth at the end of his freshman year.
Yet Saponjic didn’t see his goals as solely a reflection of his talent.
“It’s not just about me,” he said. “It’s about the complete team. I do my best every game and don’t pay attention to how many I score.”
As Cal’s most promising attacker for next season, that team-centered dedication will certainly carry his career, as well as those of his teammates.
— Annie Gerlach
Honorable Mention: C.J. Anderson
He’s a local boy who is quickly rising to be a fan favorite and a force in the backfield. His carries were limited most of the season, but C.J. Anderson barged with force seemingly every time he took the ball.
Fresh out of nearby Laney College, Anderson burst onto the scene scoring eight touchdowns and averaging five yards per carry in his first season at the Division-I level. With the vastly improved play of Isi Sofele, Anderson provided an excellent spell for Sofele this season, which should make for some stiff competition come spring practice. Anderson was easily the most pleasant surprise this season for the Cal football team and provides plenty of excitement for 2012.
— Gabriel Baumgaertner
Best Sporting Event: Men’s golf, Alister MacKenzie Invitational
Even considering all he has experienced in over 30 years at the helm of the Cal men’s golf team, coach Steve Desimone claims this year’s final round of the Alister Mackenzie Invitational was “one of the most exciting tournaments I’ve ever seen” and extolled it as “golf at its purest and golf at its highest.”
To earn such high praise, Desimone’s Bears had to sneak up behind No. 2 Oregon and clinch a share of the title on the final hole of the tournament. The Bears, who won the event the past two years, had been steadily closing the gap between the two teams in the final round on Oct. 18 at Meadow Club in Fairfax, Calif.
Freshman Michael Kim was the source of the breakthrough on the final hole. It was his birdie that put Cal in a position to win, and it was his fist pump that clearly sent the message back down the fairway to teammate Max Homa.
Seeing that action, Homa knew what rested on his shoulders. A birdie from Homa would give the Bears a win. However, if Homa scored higher and Oregon’s Eugene Wong took a birdie of his own, the Bears would surrender their hopes of a three-peat to a new champion.
Both got to the green in birdie position, Homa’s 25-foot monster dwarfed Wong’s 6-foot putt. Homa putted first, the hopes of his teammates riding on his shot. He sank the long shot to clinch a share of the title, and Wong easily cupped his to claim the Ducks’ half.
The two teams agreed that the tournament was so incredible that neither deserved the win more than the other, so they agreed to share the MacKenzie title.
“People who witnessed it will be talking about it for a long time,” Desimone said. “People will not forget what they saw at the end of that 18th green.”
— Taylor Brink
Honorable Mention: Men’s polo vs. USC
Gus Johnson should have been commentator for this year’s Cal-USC water polo match, in which Spieker Aquatics Center became Heartbreak City.
On Oct. 15, the nation’s best offense (Cal) battled the nation’s best defense (USC) in a game that extended through three overtime periods. When the final buzzer sounded, the score sat at 7-7. Two overtime periods later it increased to 8-all. Then, with six seconds left in sudden death, the Trojans sank one final shot to deliver the Bears their only conference loss.
This match wasn’t great because of its ending, though. This match was great because it involved the two best teams in the nation in a fight to the death.
— Annie Gerlach
Worst Game: Football at UCLA
The woeful words wore on the head coach. “We’ll look at the tape,” Jeff Tedford said after the Cal football got embarrassed, 34-17, by the lowly Bruins on Oct. 29 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
So what did the tape show? Four Zach Maynard picks. Nearly 300 UCLA rushing yards. Four Bruin possessions beginning in the red zone.
Blowout losses to Oregon and USC were understandable if only for the fact that Cal was supposed to lose. But Cal was not supposed to lose to UCLA — especially not with six Bruins suspended coming off a 36-point loss at Arizona.
Tedford looked tired after the Bears’ road collapse; Cal fans were simply tired of it.
— Jonathan Kuperberg