A word that can be used to describe the Cal women’s beach volleyball team’s weekend in Arizona this weekend is unexpected. The Bears finished 2-2 on the weekend, which for a team coming off a 6-0 weekend and being the highest-ranked team among their opponents, is a mediocre showing at best for the No. 11 Bears.
There were some unforeseen circumstances that may have contributed to the blue and gold’s uncharacteristic play, however for a top ranked team in the nation, their response should have been better.
They began Saturday facing an unranked Arizona State team. The Sun Devils were accustomed to the Arizona heat, but that advantage did them no good as Cal took care of them quickly in a 5-0 sweep. Up next the Bears were to face the home team, No. 17 Arizona, again in the brutal heat. They started off the match strong, with all five pairs at full strength until fifth-year senior Mima Mirkovic had an injury that forced her to exit the match, giving the Wildcats their first point.
Mirkovic is half of the Bears’ top pair and a heart and soul of the team, so her loss was momentous. After the injury, it’s as if the Bears’ wind was taken right out of their sails. The rest of the pairs proceeded with the match, but the blue and gold only managed to pick up one win by the fourth pair, freshman Ella Driebholz and senior transfer Lexi McKeown.
The Bears stumbled against the No. 17 Wildcats as they lost 4-1 in their last game of the day Saturday. This loss ended Cal’s win streak at seven games. Sunday was a new day, Cal had to shake off the loss and look toward two matches, a morning battle with Washington and an afternoon bout with Oregon.
With the injury to Mirkovic, this caused a lot of the pairs to jockey around, which meant some had to play with new partners. In the Washington game, junior captain Kate Bierly took Mirkovic’s spot in the starting lineup and was paired with Driebholz as the fifth pair. Freshman Ella Sears also came off the bench and was inserted into the second pair to play alongside junior Ava Mann. Other starters filled in spots in the rest of the lineup.
“(The injury) affected the lineup, the pairs got mixed up, now people have to perform in different situations.” said graduate transfer Ana Costa. “We still battled, but it definitely had an effect on the game for sure.”
The new pairs struggled against unranked Washington, so much so that the Huskies were able to claw three wins away from the Bears and take the match. A fully healthy Cal team should have no problem handling the Huskies, but with the injury to Mirkovic, the jockeying of pairs around and playing with new partners, the blue and gold’s play was deeply affected. The chemistry these women had built up with their usual partners was stripped from them in this game and they had to work on the fly to build familiarity with their new pair.
“There are some small things that definitely contribute to the game when it is tight,” Costa said. “I feel like those little things did affect the game a little bit.”
This loss was a tough pill to swallow for Cal, as it was against a team it knew it should have beat. The new partnerships and thought of one of its best players being down caused the Bears to fall just short against the Huskies, losing 3-2. They did not have time to hang their heads because a fiery Oregon team was up next.
Once again, there were some shifts in the pairings heading into the Oregon game. That included freshman Alex Young-Gómez being called upon to play with Bierly in the fifth pair. The Bears seemed to have gained their composure back in this match, even with some new pairings, because they were able to blow out the Ducks 5-0. Tremendous resilience was shown in a few comebacks and three set wins that allowed the Bear pairs to win all five.
“(That win) just proved to our team that we can win no matter what the lineup is or who you’re playing with,” Costa said.
There were high hopes coming into the weekend that the Bears would build on their six-game win streak and possibly extend it to 10 games with four wins down in Arizona. Those hopes were quickly stymied with an unfortunate injury and a little lack of chemistry. They were able to capture a victory in the last game and finish the tournament strong.
The Bears return home this weekend for their first and only matches in Bear territory this season.