It’s the first set of Cal volleyball’s Friday match against UCLA. The Bears are down 15-24 but they aren’t done just yet — junior Mima Mirkovic gets a kill to keep Cal in the game and fires up the crowd. But after the next point, it’s over.
Mirkovic is lying on her back on the side of the court. She makes a move to get up, but she can’t. She sits there holding her ankle, visibly in pain. Teammates Lauren Forte and Savannah Rennie carry Mirkovic off the court and just like that, she’s done for the match.
Forced to compete without a key player, the Bears struggled as they subbed players in and out, looking for Mirkovic’s replacement.
“It’s tough to respond when something you never expect to happen happens,” said Cal associate head coach Jennifer Dorr. “The 18 players we have on this team come to practice every day, train, work hard and you never know when your number is going to get called.”
Among those who were forced to step in Friday night were sophomore Makana Meyer, freshman Sydney Lilomaiava, sophomore Jessica Houghton and freshman Deniz Milli.
“I was looking for anyone coming off the bench to be able to do their job,” Dorr said.
As they got experience on the court, UCLA continued to push forward at full strength. The Bruins’ big hitters Savvy Simo and Mac May continued pounding balls left and right, leading their team to hit a .347 overall hitting percentage. Simo, in particular, had a stellar game, putting down 10 kills without a single error.
“It came down to unforced errors across the board,” Dorr said. “We really handed UCLA, a good team, way too many points.”
After a day off, Cal was back in Haas Pavilion to host USC (15-11, 9-7). The Trojans had just fallen to the Stanford Cardinal in a four-set match but came into Berkeley at full force.
Cal dropped the first set to USC 25-16 and the second set 25-22, although the Bears, still without Mirkovic, were able to make the second set more competitive.
Cal opened the third set with senior Emma Smith wearing the libero jersey, instead of sophomore Gabby Bellizzi, for what could have been her last set in Haas Pavilion.
As fellow senior defensive specialist Kat Knop joined her in the back row, they made sure it wouldn’t be their last just yet.
Down 6-7, Smith’s two huge digs and a kill from senior Maddie Haynes left the Bears tied 7-7 with the Trojans. A pancake from Houghton and a smart angle shot from Haynes gave the Bears the 8-7 lead. With another kill from Haynes right down the line and a block from setter Isabel Potter, the smallest player at the net, Cal was up 10-7.
“It was kind of surreal,” Haynes said, who went on to record a career-high 20 kills on her senior day. “It was like, ‘Wow, I’m a senior, this is my last time ever playing at Haas — I just want to give my best show, my best me, ever.’ It was kind of chilling.”
But Haynes’ stardom couldn’t do it all for the Bears. USC blockers Jasmine Gross and Emilia Weske were ready to shut down Cal’s limited options in the fourth set, and they did. While Bailee Huizenga shined more in the back row, she and Meyer both struggled to find consistency at the net.
The other two graduating players — Rennie and Morgan Wright — also saw moments on the court, although Wright was in far longer than Rennie. Rennie has been trying to play on an ACL injury, but limped off the court during the second set against UCLA and didn’t get to play against USC.
This final home match may have marked the end of something special for six players on this Cal roster, but there’s still more in store for the team. The Bears still have two weeks of conference play and the NCAA tournament awaiting them.