What this season means for Cal volleyball

Ruby Sapia/Staff

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It’s hard to imagine an era where Cal volleyball was synonymous with the best. With the smartest players. The tallest. The greatest. But from 2002 to 2013, Cal finished each season in the NCAA tournament, even making it to the final four and the championship match. For several years within that era, the Bears were the almighty, the feared team.

By the looks of it, the program is currently on its way to recreating that presence in the volleyball world.

The Bears were denied a look at the NCAA tournament Sunday by the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Committee, after playing much of the season thinking they were headed to the bracket.

But Cal doesn’t need a bid to the tournament to prove the team’s capability. The Bears have already done so in their matches this season.

Led by new head coach Sam Crosson and returning associate coach Jennifer Dorr, Cal started the season undefeated, winning every nonconference match to head into Pac-12 play 10-0.

As Cal readied to play its conference opponents, the Bears held strong. Despite dropping a 3-1 loss to then-No. 1 Stanford, Cal trekked forward, winning seven straight matches. The Bears’ win streak included stunning defeats of Washington State and Utah, both of which earned a spot at the tournament. At that point in time, Cal was 17-1.

The rest of the season wasn’t as pretty as the Bears dropped three, won three and ended the season on a six-loss skid. Yet even the losses showed improvement when compared to other seasons. There was newfound resilience and growth as fresh faces stepped into new roles and adapted to injuries.

With all-around star Mima Mirkovic sidelined for four matches because of an ankle injury, redshirt senior Savannah Rennie playing with a torn ACL and other smaller injuries throughout the team, the Bears weren’t competing at full strength when it mattered the most, or at least when it mattered the most to the committee.

In deciding who’d make the tournament, it seems as though much attention was placed on the most recent period of the season, when Cal was struggling.

Yet a more comprehensive look confirms that this 2019 season should be remembered as the start of something new. Here’s a quick walk down memory lane that highlights the Bears’ achievements.

Rennie was named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week after a tournament during which she recorded 25 kills in three matches. Rennie’s conference recognition marked the first for Cal since 2013.

For a period, junior Preslie Anderson sat atop the national rankings for efficient hitting. Finishing the season averaging a .402 hitting percentage, she was the conference’s most efficient attacker and one of the better middles in the country. Fellow middle Lauren Forte also finished on the conference’s leaderboard for hitting percentage (.342). Both Anderson and Forte will return next year.

Cal secured its first 20-win season for the first time since 2011.

Mirkovic was named AVCA National Player of the Week in addition to earning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week honors the following month. This was the first time a Bear has been named by the AVCA since Carli Lloyd earned the recognition in 2010.

In Mirkovic’s first match back after her injury, Cal took a two-set lead over then-No. 9 Washington in the Bears’ second to last match, although they ultimately fell 3-2.

Four players received all-conference honors — Mirkovic, Forte and Anderson were named to the All-Pac-12 team while senior Maddie Haynes received honorable mention recognition. This marks the second time Cal has ever had three players named to the all-conference team and the first time since 2010.

It’s undeniable that the seniors on this team, particularly Rennie, Haynes, Emma Smith and Bailee Huizenga, have been key in the transformation of the program. Leading their team through yet another coaching change — these players’ fourth new head coach — couldn’t have been easy, but they stuck by Crosson’s side and with him, the team motto: one day better.

For the seniors, the close of the 2019 season means the NCAA tournament will forever be behind them. While they won’t have a chance to compete in the tournament, the seniors have set Cal volleyball up for a new era. The Bears are one day better and now they are one season better too.

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