Mirkovic earns national recognition, leads No. 14 Cal to two more wins

Maya Valluru/File

Related Posts

Written neatly in capital letters across the top of Cal volleyball’s whiteboard is the Bears’ motto, “ONE DAY BETTER.” It sits in a rectangular box as if to preserve it. It’s been there since the start of the season, back when the Bears were the unranked underdogs, back when the program was still transitioning under its fourth head coach in four years, back when Cal was considered a team others could walk over.

No. 14 Cal (17-1, 7-1) is no longer that team on paper, but the slogan will continue to stay on the whiteboard. A large part of Cal head coach Sam Crosson’s coaching strategy is to keep his team pushing itself.

“He tells us before every game, expect a five-set match. Keep the underdog mentality,” said senior outside hitter Maddie Haynes. “We can’t underestimate any team in the Pac-12 because it’s one of the best conferences.”

This past weekend the Bears hosted No. 18 Utah, which had been tied for first in the conference, and then hosted Colorado, which has yet to win a conference match. Although the Utes and Buffs came in with far different records, both played some of their best volleyball, pushing the Bears to five sets. If Colorado taught Cal anything, it confirmed that no Pac-12 opponent can be taken lightly.

The Bears’ two nail-biting wins this weekend were true team efforts. Setter Isabel Potter tallied 46 assists in Cal’s match against Colorado, just one shy of matching her career high. Haynes notched 19 kills and right side hitter Bailee Huizenga hit .375 on 32 attempts against Colorado. Middles Preslie Anderson and Lauren Forte continued to be the powerful, consistent forces they have been all season — while setter Jade Blevins returned to the court after sitting out a few matches, medically uncleared to play.

But the performance that stood out most was from outside hitter Mima Mirkovic. After leading her team with a combined 37 kills and 31 digs on the weekend, Mirkovic was named the Pac-12 offensive player of the week. The acknowledgment by the conference was followed by an even greater one as Mirkovic was recognized as the AVCA player of the week — a national level achievement. The honor comes as the first for a Cal player since Carli Lloyd earned it in 2010.

Mirkovic came into this season with a goal to be a more consistent player — something she is undoubtedly doing as one of the Bears’ all-around players. The junior has started and played the entirety of nearly every match since her freshman season.

Cal’s wins this weekend put the Bears at seven conference wins, already matching that of their previous season and making the team eligible for the NCAA tournament.

“Our first goal we made this past spring was to be eligible for the tournament,” Huizenga said. “So now that we’ve done that it’s like ‘What’s next? What’s the next goal that we want to set?’”

The Bears aren’t prancing about in their success and achievements, but instead working to be one day better with their new goals — a conference title and a trip to the Final Four.

“We’re finally seeing that we’re good enough, statistically and just looking at us as a team, that we’re capable of going to the final four,” Huizenga said. “So why not us? I definitely think that our mindset has changed of not being complacent of being tournament eligible, but setting that next goal and going after that one.”

As Cal chases after its new goals, the squad will be put to the test with tough road matches against USC and UCLA. Both teams are sitting on 5-3 conference records and have shown moments of brilliance this season.

UCLA’s 6-2 offense is run by setters sophomore Devon Chang and Cali Thompson, with junior Mac May still the favorite to set. The outside hitter had a career-high 29 kills against Washington and averages 4.70 kills per set — the second highest in the conference.

Like Haynes said, every Pac-12 program has serious strengths. As the Trojans and Bruins try to reclaim their stronger pasts this weekend, the Bears will be defending the present as they remain atop the conference standings, tied with Stanford. After all, Cal has new goals in store — ones requiring the Bears to continue being one day better.

Surina Khurana covers volleyball. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @surina_k.