Cal Beach Volleyball beats Oregon, Arizona to stay alive in Pac-12 tourney "contenders bracket"

No.11 Cal Bears would need to win 3 matches on Saturday to take the Pac-12 crown. They need to win 2 to have a shot at the NCAA at-large bid.

For a squad that was ranked as high as No.8 in the nation earlier this season, Cal Beach Volleyball (14-11, 5-5 in Pac-12, entering the Pac-12 tournament) needed to capitalize on the ample opportunities to earn some noteworthy wins this weekend in Los Angeles, if not win the automatic bid outright, to make the 8-team deep Pac-12 tournament in Gulf Shore, Alabama next weekend.

With now 156 NCAA beach volleyball programs across the country in 2021 versus just 56 when the first NCAA championship was held in 2016, pundits believe that the NCAA field should be expanded to 16 teams sooner than later (maybe even as soon as 2022) in addition to possibly setting up different championships for different divisions.

The Pac-12 Network has all of the action this weekend. Because the TV coverage often just focuses on one court, the live stat is always useful to track all the action across the different courts simultaneously.

The double-elimination format of the Pac-12 tournament meant that the Cal Bears needed to stay alive to build their resume. After an initial loss, a team would be dropped from the “winners bracket” to the “contenders bracket”. A second loss would eliminate the team from the tournament.

The Golden Bears used the same lineup for all three matches thus far in the tournament. The top two pairs for the Cal Bears have remained steady for the entire season. Interim head coach Derek Olson had shuffled the bottom three pairings all season long to pair a talented freshman with a seasoned senior.

The top pair of seniors Mima Mirkovic (who has also been Cal Indoor Volleyball’s best player for the past three years) and Caroline Schafer were the Pac-12 Pair of the Week two weeks ago. The Pac-12 broadcast has already said that Mirkovic will remain at Cal for graduate school next year and play both indoor in the fall as well as beach in the spring. Mirkovic will have a new partner as Schafer will move to USC for their business graduate program and play beach volleyball against the Bears for the Trojans.

The pair of sophomore Ainsley Radell and junior Jordan Polo as the No.2 pair was the other holdover from last year and stayed the same for this entire season. The rest of the lineup has only limited experience playing together. Cal pairs a senior with a freshman for both the No.3 pair - senior Alexia Inman with Canadian freshman Ava Man and the No.4 pair - senior Maddie Micheletti with freshman Maya Gessner. The most experienced Cal freshman Brooke Buchner plays as the No.5 pair with another freshman in Grace Paulson.

As the 5th seed in a 9-team tournament, the Cal Bears opened against 4th seed and 9th-ranked Stanford on Thursday. The two Bay Area rivals split their four meetings in the regular season, with the Cal Bears winning the more recent meet on April 18th by a 4-1 result.

The Golden Bears had a chance to go up 2-0 in the dual but could not close out the match in the 2nd set at the No.4 pair. Cal ended up winning the battles of No.2 and No.3 but fell 3-2 to Stanford in an extremely hard-fought contest to fall to the “contenders bracket” where every dual would be a must-win.

The first match on Friday saw the Cal Bears against the Oregon Ducks, who had lost 3-0 to No.1 USC. It only took a few points for the Bears to find their groove against the Ducks. The Bears won both matches in the first flight by winning the battle on No.3 and No.5. A win by Mirkovic and Schafer at No.1 sealed the win.

The Bears got to play 8th-ranked Arizona in their second match of Friday. Cal had lost 4-1 to Arizona in the lone regular-season dual where only Mirkovic and Schafer earned the win.

It was another hard-fought battle like on Thursday but things broke Cal’s way on Friday. The Bearss faced and saved match points on both the No.5 and the No.2 pair before winning those matches in the decisive 3rd sets. Cal also got a dominant No.1 pair win. With the season on the line and everyone watching, Polo and Radell won their 3rd set under intense pressure to give the 11th-ranked Cal a huge win over the 8th-ranked Arizona.

Cal had survived to play on Saturday where they would get a rematch against No.9 Stanford after the Cardinal ousted Arizona State 3-1 on Friday night. The winner of that Bay Area showdown will play the loser between No.1 USC and No.2 UCLA (the top-two ranked teams not just in the Pac but also the country). Yes, the last four teams remaining in the Pac-12 Beach Volleyball Tournament are the four California schools. Realistically, Cal Beach Volleyball probably needs an upset victory over a UCLA or USC (so two wins on Saturday) to earn serious consideration for the NCAA Championship field. By beating Arizona in dramatic fashion on Friday, the Cal Golden Bears (16-12) will at least have that opportunity.

Below is the live blogging of all the Cal action from Thursday and Friday.

Thursday: Opening match vs. Stanford

Cal 2, Stanford 3

Interestingly, Cal went with a different lineup than the previous two weekends for the bottom three pairs. Because coaching during non-timeouts (or the side switch every 5 points) is not allowed in NCAA Beach Volleyball, it is understandable that Cal would pair a senior with a freshman so that an experienced player of a pair could initiate adjustments mid-match.

Pair 2 and 4 simultaneously played first on Thursday. Pair 1, 3, and 5 then play simultaneously in the second flight. According to the telecast, it would be pair 3 and 5 playing first on Friday. A coin flip will decide who goes first on Saturday.

The Cal No.2 pair of Radell/Polo took their set 1, 21-18 against Stanford’s pair of Charlie Ekstrom and Maya Harvey. The Bears remained in control throughout set 2 to cruise to a 21-15 victory. The first point of the dual went to the Cal Bears.

Gessner, with a cast on her right hand, and Micheletti started set 1 well and went up by 6 at one point. Yet they had to fight back to tie the set at 20-20 against Amelia Smith and Emmy Sharp. The two pairs went back and forth, with the Bears saving 6 set points before Maya Gessner used a huge block to earn their first set point. A few points later, the Cal No.4 pair won set 1, 27-25. The second set was also tight, with the two sides trading points and making great plays to both save set points. Eventually (after some of the flight 2 matches had nearly completed their first set), Stanford outlasted Cal 29-27 to force a decisive 3rd set. The Cal pair had at least a couple of match points in the 2nd set but could not convert. Unfortunately, Stanford came out strong in set 3 and maintained a 2 or 3 point lead before winning 15-12 to tie this dual at 1-1.

Stanford opted to play their newly formed pair and the reigning Pac-12 Pair of the Week as their No.1 for this match. Xolani Hodel and Sunny Vollapando defeated Mirkovic/Schafer to take set 1, 21-18. Apparently, both Vollapando and Schafer will be graduate students in business at USC next season. Mirkovic and Schafer could not turn things around in set 2 and lost 21-13. Stanford took a 2-1 dual lead.

For the No.3 matchup, Cal’s Ava Mann and Alexia Inman won set 1 against Maddi Kriz and Kate Reilly, 21-18. Stanford bounced back to take a sizable set 2 lead. Cal had some momentum by the end of the second set but Stanford still prevailed 21-17 to push this to a 3rd set. Inman and Mann took advantage of a communication mistake on a crucial point to go up by two points and hold on for the 15-13 win. This Bay Area dual will be decided by matchup No.5.

On court 5, the Cal pair of Buchner/Paulson was just playing their 3rd collegiate match together. They trailed set 1 early to Stanford’s Jordan McKinney and Maddie Dailey and lost 21-12. Buchner missed time last weekend due to an elbow injury. Stanford stayed ahead in set 2, but the Bears showed more fight, but it was not enough. Stanford won set 2, 21-13 to take this dual.

#9 STANFORD 3, #11 CAL 2
#1 – Xolani Hodel/Sunny Villapando (STAN) def. Mima Mirkovic/Caroline Schafer (CAL) – 21-18, 21-13  
#2 – Ainsley Radell/Jordan Polo (CAL) def. Charlie Ekstrom/ Maya Harvey (STAN) – 21-18, 21-15
#3 – Alexia Inman/Ava Mann (CAL) def. Kate Reilly/Maddi Kriz (STAN) – 21-18, 17-21, 15-13
#4 – Emmy Sharp/Amelia Smith (STAN) def. Maddie Micheletti/Maya Gessner (CAL) – 25-27, 29-27, 15-12
#5 – Maddie Dailey/Jordan McKinney (STAN) def. Brooke Buchner/Grace Paulson (CAL) – 21-12, 21-13
Order of Finish – 2, 4, 1, 3, 5

This match against Stanford started so promisingly. Obviously, the result would have been different had the Bears won matchup No.4. Nonetheless, the Bears will get the chance to come out of the “contenders bracket” and fight for the survival of their 2021 season. Cal will face the loser of USC/Oregon (almost surely Oregon) first thing Friday morning.

Friday: Contenders Bracket Match 1 vs. Oregon

Cal 3, Oregon 0

It is now win-or-go-home time for the Cal Bears. They will first take on 8th seed Oregon first. Should the Bears prevail, they will face the loser between UCLA and Arizona in the afternoon.

Cal went with the same lineup as Thursday.

Pair 3 and 5 started first on Friday.

Inman/Mann lost their first set 16-21 to the Ducks pair of Vivian Donovan and Zoe Almanza, but Buchner/Paulson won their first set this weekend with a 21-12 over Savannah Siegrist and Delaney Hopen. Inman/Mann finished set 1 strong despite the loss; that carried over to an easy second set win of 21-13 to force a deciding 3rd set.

Bears earned the first point of the dual when Buchner/Paulson won their second set 21-16 to take the battle of the No.5 pairs.

Inman/Mann started the 3rd set a little bit slow but was soon able to take over and win 15-12 to give the Bears a 2nd point in the elimination dual.

The Bears could close this out just by winning the No.1 battle. Mirkovic/Schafer also quickly overcame a sluggish start to win their first set, 21-10. Unfortunately, this match ended prematurely due to an injury sustained by Oregon’s Carly Wallace while the Bears were up 8-3 in the second set. Cal clinched the dual victory and will play the loser between No.2 (nationally) UCLA and No.8 Arizona (which turned out to be Arizona after a UCLA 3-0 quarterfinal victory).

For the other two incomplete matches, Cal No.2 pair of Radell/Polo won their first set 21-13. No.4 pair of Micheletti/Gessner were ahead 6-4.

#5 CAL 3, #8 OREGON 0
#1 – Mima Mirkovic/Caroline Schafer (CAL) def. Carly Wallace/Madelyn LaFollette (ORE) – 21-10, 21-3 (retired)
#2 – Ainsley Radell/Jordan Polo (CAL) vs. Josie Cole/Anastasia Lima (ORE) – 21-13, 5-1 unfinished
#3 – Alexia Inman/Ava Mann (CAL) def. Vivian Donovan/Zoe Almanza (ORE) – 16-21, 21-14, 15-12
#4 – Maddie Micheletti/Maya Gessner (CAL) vs. Bea Wetton/Ashley Schroeder (ORE) – 11-7 unfinished
#5 – Brooke Buchner/Grace Paulson (CAL) def. Savannah Siegrist/Delaney Hopen (ORE) – 21-12, 21-16
Order of Finish – 5, 3, 1

Friday: Contenders Bracket Match 2 vs. Arizona

Cal 3, Arizona 2

In this 2021 season, the Cal Bears only played Arizona once back on April 11th when the Wildcats won 4-1. Mirkovic and Schafer at No.1 was the lone Cal winner then. The Arizona lineup on that day was the same as the one that faced UCLA earlier today. Cal’s No.3, No.4, and No.5 pairs have changed since then. Also of note, Radell/Polo at No.2 pushed Arizona to a 3rd set before losing.

Cal would use the same lineup for the third straight match of this tournament.

In the first flight, the matchups were Inman/Mann vs. Anselmo/Lowry on court 3 and Buchner/Paulson vs. Hallaran/Shannon on court 5. Arizona won the first set 21-17 on court 3 after Inman/Mann fought off a few set points. Court 5 was even tighter but Buchner/Paulson was able to take set 1, 21-19.

The second set of the first flight was a reverse of the first set. Court 5 was a dominant win by the Arizona pair while court 3 was a tightly fought set with Cal slightly ahead. Buchner/Paulson lost 21-12. Inman/Mann won 21-19. Both matches would be heading to a decisive 3rd set (first to 15).

While the first flight was in their 3rd set, court 1 had started. Mirkovic/Schafer would attempt to beat Rennie/Parkhurst for the second time in 2021. The Cal pair went up with a 21-17 set 1 victory. By the way, the telecast said that Mima Mirkovic will be staying at Cal for graduate school. She would be both returning to indoor volleyball (where Cal desperately needs her) in the fall as well as beach volleyball again in the spring of 2022.

Buchner/Paulson had a tight fight again, forcing a tie at 10-10. The No.3 match was not nearly as competitive for Inman/Mann as they lost 15-3 to give the first dual point to Arizona. Fortunately for the Cal Bears, Buchner/Paulson managed to take their 3rd set eventually 17-15 after wasting a few match points and fighting off one match point to tie this elimination dual at 1-1.

In a fun 2nd set, Mirkovic had several huge spikes and got more and more fired up after each one as she and partner Caroline Schafer won their 2nd set 21-11 to take the set. Cal Bears took that pivotal second dual point to go up 2-1.

The first sets on No.2 and No.4 pairs started a bit slowly for the Cal Bears. Radell/Polo as the No.2 pair was able to make a comeback to make things interesting up until the final point. Unfortunately, a service error ended the set 21-19 in favor of Arizona. The Wildcats pair of Parker/Noble was dominant in taking their first set 21-12 over Cal’s Micheletti/Gessner. The Bears would need to rally to win at least one of these second sets to keep the season alive.

The second sets of the second flights went much better for the Bears; both sets were highly competitive. Polo and Radell were able to save a match point and they won set 2, 22-20 with a huge block. Micheletti and Gessner meanwhile saved the first couple of match points before losing 21-17.

This dual will be decided by the 3rd set in the No.2 matchup.

Polo and Radell started out fast with a 4-1 lead before the first side switch. Wildcats’ Blacker and Burling could only react as the Cal duo dictated most points to take a 6-2 lead and forced the first Arizona timeout of this deciding set. On the second side switch, Cal held a 7-3 lead. To my non-expert eyes, Radell’s “sets” in beach volleyball appear to be something that would be called “lifts” (or double contacts) in indoor volleyball. Nonetheless, the Bears hold a 10-5 lead at the 3rd side switch.

A nice crosscourt kill by the lefty Jordan Polo gave the Bears an 11-5 lead. Radell’s tough serve turned into another Polo kill (12-5). Radell’s next serve just went long (12-6). Polo’s kill goes off the blocker for a 13-6 Cal lead. A questionable call that the ball went off Radell’s block attempt (Radell pleaded no contact with the ball before it went out) gave Wildcats the next point. A tough rally went the way of the Wildcats on the next point. Polo then earned the first match point with a kill to make it 14-8. The Wildcats won the next point before a pair of Radell hitting errors. Cal led 14-11 going to another side switch.

With a little bit of luck, Radell’s next hit rolled on the tape before falling on the sand of the other side of the net. Cal had won this set 15-11 and won the dual 3-2!

#5 CAL 3, #3 ARIZONA 0
#1 – Mima Mirkovic/Caroline Schafer (CAL) def. Alana Rennie/Alex Parkhurst (ARIZ) – 21-17, 21-11
#2 – Ainsley Radell/Jordan Polo (CAL) vs. Sarah Blacker/Brooke Burling (ARIZ) –
#3 – Natalie Anselmo/Carly Lowry (ARIZ) def. Alexia Inman/Ava Mann (CAL) – 21-17, 19-21, 15-3
#4 – Dana Parker/Mady Noble (ARIZ) def. Maddie Micheletti/Maya Gessner (CAL) – 21-12, 21-17
#5 – Brooke Buchner/Grace Paulson (CAL) def. Olivia Hallaran/Hope Shannon (ARIZ) – 21-19, 12-21, 17-15
Order of Finish – 3, 5, 1, 4, 2

The Bears had survived and will next face the winner between Stanford and ASU at 9 AM PT on Saturday!