Mia Jerkov could earn a salary playing volleyball right now but instead is leading Cal to its best start in 13 years.
The 19-year-old sophomore from Split, Croatia, is a big reason why the Golden Bears, who had a 10-18 record last year, won their first nine matches this season. Jerkov, pronounced YAIR-cove, led the Bears with 152 kills and earned MVP honors in three tournaments as Cal won 27 straight games.
Cal's 9-0 start matched what the Bears did in 1989, which was also the last time they had a winning season. However, just like the '89 team, Cal lost its 10th match, falling in three sets to Stanford last Friday night in Maples Pavilion. The Bears played the Cardinal close in the first two games, falling 30-28 and 30-25. Stanford, the defending national champion, closed out the final set 30-18.
Jerkov led the Bears with 13 kills and had seven digs but wasn’t happy with her performance.
“I was kind of looking for my own rhythm the whole match and couldn't find it,” she said. “We were struggling with them, battling. The first two games were really tight. If you ask, me we should've won those. But since Stanford is a much more experienced team, they battled and they won.”
No matter what her rhythm, Cal coach Rich Feller is just glad to have her around. Jerkov played in only 10 games for Cal last year due to tendonitis in her left shin and commitments to the Croatian national team.
That was a big hole to fill.
“She's one of the top players out there,” Feller said.
A 6-3, 157-pound outside hitter, Jerkov boasts an impressive resume: She is a member of the Croatian national team and has played in various youth and European championships. Jerkov comes from an athletic bloodline, as her 6-11 father, Zeljko, was a starting center on the Croatian national basketball team.
Jerkov was playing for Croatia in the 1999 Youth World Championships in Portugal when she learned the Bears were trying to recruit her. Cal, along with USC, previously tried to contact Jerkov through Croatian officials, who did not pass on the news. Instead, Jerkov made her first Cal connection through a chance meeting with Cal assistant coach Lee Maes, then an assistant with the U.S. national team. The two ran into each other at an ice cream parlor in Madeira, Portugal, where Maes piqued her interest in playing in Berkeley.
In 2000, Jerkov made a detour while visiting family friends in San Francisco. She watched as Cal lost to Florida, three games to one, in the Golden Bear Classic.
Despite the loss, the Bears intrigued Jerkov.
“I liked what I saw,” she said. “It was a good team and still is a good team.”
Going to Cal was just one of her choices. Jerkov says that several Italian professional clubs – six teams in the first division and the entire second division – wanted to sign her up, based on her play with her national team.
But she didn't want to sit on the bench in Italy, which boasts the best league in the world in which rookies tend to wait their turn behind veteran players. And she didn't want to play professionally anywhere else when she could hone her skills and get an education in the United States.
“Going to Cal was the optimal solution,” she said. “It's a risk, because I want to play professionally afterwards, and you can never tell if you're going to develop into something great or something real bad. These are the crucial years as a player. That's one of the main reasons why I didn't choose Italy or a professional league. I didn't want to be that pressured and I wanted to feel normal about playing and developing myself as a player.”
“We got lucky that this was the right school for her,” Feller said. “I don't think that happens unless we have something good to offer her here. She had to trust us that we were going to be good.”