Cal beach volleyball to open season against Saint Mary’s, Pacific

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Cal beach volleyball head coach Meagan Owusu calls her team the most talented group Cal has seen. Her words will be put to the test this weekend when the Bears play in their season-opener tournament against Saint Mary’s and Pacific.

“The team has been training for a long offseason and preseason, and more than anything, we are just excited to compete against a team that isn’t ourselves,” Owusu said.

The three teams will all play each other at the Tigers’ facilities on Saturday. The Bears will face the Gaels before playing Pacific in the afternoon.

Saint Mary’s, which was undefeated in conference play, is coming off a strong 2017 season with a 19-10 record. Pacific didn’t have nearly as much success last year, finishing 4-10, but new additions to the team and added experience will make the Tigers good competition for the Bears’ second match of the season.

In last year’s season opener, the Bears beat both the Gaels and the Tigers 3-2, and if Owusu’s words are proven true, the Bears should see similar success this weekend.

“Because it’s opening weekend, we don’t know too much about our opponents,” Owusu said. “We’re really going to focus on our side of the net and do what we can to prepare our game in order to take them down.”

Cal ended its 2017 season with an overall record of 13-12 and a conference record of 2-3, ranking sixth out of the nine Pac-12 teams. The team dynamic and skill set differs from before, as the Bears lost a few players and gained six freshmen.

“We return our two captains, Bryce (Bark) and Teya (Neff),” Owusu said. “(They) have a big impact on the girls and maintaining our culture. We do have a large group of freshmen and we expect a good number of them to contribute right away.”

One of those freshmen is Mima Mirkovic. Mirkovic, who plays on the indoor team in the fall, joins Cal’s roster with a bronze medal under her belt from the FIVB (Fédération Internationale de Volleyball) U21 world championship. It’s difficult to say whether she’ll have a greater impact in the sand than on the hardwood court, but it’s undeniable that Mirkovic is a valuable asset to both teams.

Mirkovic will be playing with indoor teammate senior Jessica Gaffney, who played in 16 of 26 matches on Cal’s No. 1 pair last year. While Gaffney has more experience with four years of collegiate beach volleyball under her belt, Mirkovic will certainly bring something new to the court.

Co-captain Neff will not play because of a shoulder injury, but Bark, junior Mia Merino and sophomore Camille Stepanof will have key roles this weekend. Merino played every match as part of the No. 1 pair in both her freshman and sophomore seasons and Stepanof had an 11-7 record as part of the No. 3 pair her freshman year.

2018 marks just the fifth season of Cal beach volleyball and the third time Pac-12 beach volleyball championships will be held. Just like the Bears, the sport is relatively young but picking up steam.

“Our expectations of where we can go are much higher,” Owusu said.

Surina Khurana covers volleyball. Contact her at [email protected]