COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Lara Vukasovic played middle blocker last season for the first time in her career, and ended up being one of only five players in the Pac-12 to rank in the top-10 in both hitting percentage and blocking.
Despite that success, the Cal junior still had designs on playing on the pins – either on the left or right side. That was until Vukasovic had a conversation with former Cal All-American and fellow Croatian Mia Jerkov.
“She asked me what position do I feel most proud of myself in volleyball, and really last year was the only time I felt like I was playing the right position,” Vukasovic said.
It’s a good thing Vukasovic stayed in the middle, because she and fellow junior Lillian Schonewise make up one of the top middle blocker tandems in the Pac-12 this season. The two teamed up to lead the Bears to a 19-25, 25-22, 25-20, 25-22 victory over Winthrop on Saturday during the second day of the Falcon Classic at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Vukasovic had 14 kills at a .450 hitting percentage while Schonewise registered 12 kills and hit a whopping .611. The two combined to average 6.5 kills per set at a .526 clip.
“When you look at the hitting stats in the middle, it’s pretty incredible,” Cal coach Rich Feller said.
The Bears (2-0) needed the production from their middles to finally put away the spirited Eagles (1-3), who ran a quick, effective offense and stayed competitive even in the sets they lost. After dropping the first set, Cal took a 21-14 lead in the second only to see Winthrop cut it to 22-20. The Bears ultimately needed three set points to even the match.
Cal led 17-11 in the third set but the Eagles came back to tie it at 18-18. The Bears were up 21-20 before scoring the final four points to go out in front 2 sets to 1.The fourth set was tied at 21-21 but the Bears scored four of the final five points, ending the match on a block by Schonewise and freshman Christine Alftin.
“Winthrop played their hearts out,” Feller said. “They never let up. They played really hard and I give them a lot of credit.”
Senior opposite hitter Christina Higgins led Cal with 15 kills. Freshman Ashten Smith-Gooden added 11 kills and junior Sarah Cole played an excellent match in the back row, adding five digs and stabilizing the Bears’ passing when needed.
“At the same time, I give our team credit for struggling and maybe doubting themselves and fighting through some frustrating phases,” Feller said. “In the end, we were able to bring it back together and play as a team well enough to win a match. This was a good lesson. It’s the kind of we are going to play a lot, especially during the early part of the season.”
The Bears close out play in the Falcon Classic on Sunday against Air Force.