Cal Volleyball: Can No. 21 Bears End Stanford's 14-Match Win Streak Against Cal?

Jake Curtis

$500 and a bag of diapers.

Sounds like a campaign slogan, on the order of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” or “Remember the Alamo.”

In fact, it was all Lisa and Alex Mirkovic had with them in 1999 after winning a lottery that enabled them to escape Serbia with the Kosovo War raging and bombs falling. The diapers were for daughter Mima, then 2 months old, when the Mirkovic family landed in southern California with almost nothing.

Now Mima Mirkovic, who has dual citizenship in Serbia and the United States, is a star outside hitter on Cal’s women’s volleyball team, which has exceeded expectations so far but faces its biggest challenge of the season on Thursday evening when it hosts No. 1-ranked and defending national champion Stanford.

“Very skilled. Very high IQ. Her arm strength is second to none,” first-year Cal coach Sam Crosson said of Mirkovic. “She is the figurehead. She is the face.”

The Bears were picked to finish tied for eighth in the preseason Pac-12 poll and no Cal player was named to the 14-woman preseason all-conference squad.

“We embrace the underdog role,” Crosson said.

The Bears are 10-0 and ranked No. 21, the first season they have been ranked since 2013 and the first time they started 10-0 since 2011. The Bears are one of just two unbeaten Division I volleyball squads in the nation, although they have a long way to go to match the success of the 2010 Bears, who won their first 15 games and reached the national championship match.

If the Bears should somehow beat Stanford Thursday night at Haas Pavilion, it would be their first win over the Cardinal since 2011. Since then, Cal has lost 14 consecutive matches against Stanford, and the Bears failed to win a set in the past five meetings.

If anybody knows how to beat the tradition-rich Cardinal volleyball team, it’s Crosson. During his only two seasons as a Cal assistant coach in 2010 and 2011, the Bears went 4-0 against the Cardinal, and the second 2011 victory represented Cal’s most recent win over the Cardinal. Crosson then became the head coach at Cal Poly, and that team took Stanford to a fifth set in 2016 before losing in the Cardinal’s home gym.

Now Crosson (pictured in photo above) has transformed a Cal team that went 15-16 last year to one that hopes to make noise in the Pac-12.

Mirkovic says Crosson has made a difference.

“I want to say it’s this collective confidence, while maintaining an underdog mentality,” she said. “He looks at things from a bigger perspective. He encourages risk-taking.”

Mirkovic, a junior, will again see a familiar face when she lines up against Stanford. Cardinal star Kathryn Plummer, a two-time national collegiate player of the year, was Mirkovic’s partner when they won bronze medals in the 2016 FIVB Under-19 Beach World Championships in Nanjing, China, and the 2017 Under-21 World Beach World Championships in Lanarka, Cyprus.

“We’ve known each other since we were 10; we’ve been side by side,” Mirkovic said. “During a match [against Stanford] we might sneak a smile or a wink with each other.”

But will Cal be smiling as a team after Thursday’s match? Afterall Crosson considers Stanford one of the greatest teams in history.

“This is the greatest opportunity we can get,” Crosson said.

And how big a win would it be if the Bears triumph?

“Will it be a ‘shock the world’? Absolutely not,” Crosson said. “Will it be a good win? Absolutely. We are 10-0, but are we good enough to do this?”

Mirkovic is well aware of Stanford’s remarkable volleyball history and tradition. The Cardinal’s eight national championships are the most by any school, and Stanford has won two of the last three NCAA titles. She is measured in her assessment of how important beating Stanford would be.

“It would be a huge deal,” she said, “but it’s just one match.”

In the video above, Mirkovic talks about the game agatinst Stanford and her relationship with Stanford's Kathryn Plummer.

Cover photo of Mima Mirkovic and photo of Cal coach Sam Crosson by Marcus Edwards/KLC Fotos

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