BERKELEY – When the Cal volleyball team reaches the final city on its two-week trip to Europe, it will have a pretty knowledgeable tour guide.
The Bears depart Saturday for a tour that will cover five cities in four countries. The last stop will be in Zagreb, Croatia – the hometown of sophomore middle blocker Lara Vukasovic.
“It feels good to be able to show your team where you are from,” Vukasovic said. “It’s my country. I know everything about it. I’m happy they will get to see my background.”
Cal will visit Switzerland, Italy and Slovenia before landing in Croatia. Italy is also the native homeland of sophomore outside hitter Nikki Gombar, who hails from Rome.
Under NCAA rules, teams are allowed to take international trips once every four years for cultural and competitive experience.
“We’re going to really try hard to mix the competitive and cultural worlds together,” Cal head coach Rich Feller said. “When we’re playing, it’s serious volleyball because this is ideal preparation for next year. We want to take it seriously. But at the same time, there’s no championship at stake. They will get to see some parts of the world that they may never have a chance to see again.”
Cal is scheduled to play six matches against various national and club teams. The Bears ‘ first stop is in Montreux, Switzerland – the home of the VolleyMasters, one of the biggest annual international tournaments of the year. Cal will get a chance to watch parts of the tournament, including the U.S. National Team.
While in Montreux, the team also expects to visit with Sylvie Monnet, a former three-time All-American at Cal in the early 1980s who is now the director of volleyball for the Swiss National Team. Monnet still holds the program’s single-season record for blocks (216) and aces (62), both set in 1983.
From Montreux, the Bears will travel to the Italian cities of Venice and Bibione before moving on to Maribor, Slovenia. From there, it will be on to Croatia, which is also the homeland of former Cal stars Mia Jerkov and Hana Cutura.
“Student-athletes don’t really have an opportunity during their college years to train abroad or travel abroad or study abroad,” Feller said. “Their summers are short. Their springs and falls are full. I thought it was a great opportunity to take the team and not only get the benefit of the extra training and the experience of competing against very high-level club teams and national teams, but to have the experience of touring a little bit. It’s just a wonderful opportunity for everyone.”
The cultural education actually began this week. The team was split into small groups with each assigned one of their destinations to research. Each day, a group is reporting its findings back to the team.
Not only will the Bears be afforded with once-in-a-lifetime competitive and cultural experiences, the trip should help the team increase team chemistry. Unlike regular season travel when the team packs in flights, matches, practice and studies into a few days, this trip should allow players and coaches to spend meaningful time together in a more relaxed environment.
“When we travel together in season, it’s pretty stressful,” Vukasovic said. “We’re really focused on volleyball. Now, we’ll really be able to bond and have fun together in a different country. Just getting to know each other on another level I think is really going to help our team chemistry a lot.”