Stanford women a big hit in Pac-12 volleyball opener

Cal's Mima Mirkovic (left) and Stanford's Kathryn Plummer during the U21 Beach Volleyball World Championships. Photo courtesy of FIVB.

For the past eight years, Stanford sophomore Kathryn Plummer and California freshman Mima Mirkovic have been inseparable when it came to volleyball. The close friends had always played on the same side of the court, indoor and beach, until Wednesday night.

"It was a little weird," Plummer said after pounding 17 kills in the Cardinal's 25-20, 25-14, 25-15 victory over the visiting Bears in the Pac-12 Conference opener for both teams. "We know each others' tendencies so well and we're both very competitive. But it was fun."

Spencer McLaughlin/Mike Rasay
The partnership of Plummer and Mirkovic has led to a great deal of success, most notably earning a bronze medal at the U19 Beach Volleyball World Championships in Larnaka, Cyprus in 2016 and then earning a bronze medal at the U21 Beach Volleyball World Championships this past summer in Nanking, China.

"The first volleyball team I was on, she was with me," Plummer said. "We started indoor together and then just went to beach together a few years later."

Mirkovic led the Bears with nine kills on a hitting percentage of .375 and did manage to slip a serve past Plummer for an ace during the match.

Plummer, who hit .519 for the match, which was below average as Stanford hit a collective .549, sent a sharp attack just in front of Mirkovic, who jumped off the floor after a futile attempt to dig it and just started to laugh.

While Plummer would have preferred to keep playing with her, she acknowledged Mirkovic made the right choice.

"Cal is a good fit for her," said Plummer, who was a gold medalist at the 2014 U17 world championships.

Fourth-ranked Stanford (8-2, 1-0) delivered a torrid of kills that Cal had difficulty handling. The Bears (9-3, 0-1) fought hard and sent a handful of quality strikes Stanford's way.

Both teams are getting to know new coaches but there's a big difference. Stanford is the defending national champion. The Bears struggled through a losing season.

Mirkovic, one of five freshmen on the roster, has helped breathe new life into the Cal program. So has Cal assistant Spencer McLaughlin, a name associated with the Stanford men's national title team in 2010. He's in his first year at Cal but has helped coached men's teams at Hawaii and UCLA.

Woodside grad Christine Alftin is also enjoying her senior year at Cal. She was named the MVP at the Rice Invitational and is one of four Bears who average at least 2.36 kills per set.

The Bears have already matched their win total from last season and appear ready to step back into the national limelight.

There are no easy matches in the Pac-12 though, with seven teams ranked in the top 25 and an eighth receiving votes.

Cardinal coach Kevin Hambly has had experience coaching in such circumstances. His previous stop was at Illinois and the Big Ten also has seven teams ranked in top 25, with two others receiving votes.

"This feels normal for me," he said after earning his first Pac-12 victory. "You have to prepare every night. Cal pushed us early. They were ready to play. You have to bring it every night."

Stanford travels to No. 25 Colorado (10-1, 0-0) for a conference match on Sunday. The Buffaloes open Pac-12 play with a match against visiting No. 16 Utah on Friday night.

Colorado's lone loss was to current No. 2 Penn State, the same team that handed the Cardinal its two losses. The Buffaloes also have a couple of quality victories, over Illinois and over No. 22 Colorado State.

"Colorado is a little different but we've played there twice last year," Plummer said. "We'll embrace the environment."

If the altitude does cause any distractions, Hambly can turn to a deep bench that includes potential All-Americans.

"We have consistent starters and a solid bench who can step up," Plummer said. "We have the ability to make changes."

These days, things are running smoothly, not that Stanford is taking anything for granted.

Even with four sophomores and a pair of freshmen seeing extended playing time, the group has a veteran feel to it.

It's a team that learned a lot about itself last year and continues to work to improve.

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