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Mustang Spotlight: Tia Miric • Cal Poly Beach Volleyball

Mustang Spotlight: Tia Miric • Cal Poly Beach Volleyball

     As a back-to-back All-American for a top-five ranked team and as someone who started college as a U-21 world champion, Tia Miric had already played in her fair share of memorable beach volleyball matches before this year. Whether representing Canada at the youth world games in Cyprus, playing for an NCAA championship at Gulf Shores on ESPNU, or competing for a conference trophy in Hawai'i, her career hasn't lacked for significant moments.

     Even alongside such memories, though, an evening from this past February stands out in her mind.

     Alumni packed the walkways lining Mustang Beach Volleyball Complex. Families and friends cheered from chairs beside the courts. Students gathered against the ledges above in the overlooking parking structure to take in a bird's-eye view of the scene.

     All the while, brand-new Swanson Family Videoboard helped the nearby light towers illuminate the courts as the backdrop of Bishop Peak and Cerro San Luis formed under a vibrant sunset.

     The spectators saw Cal Poly host its first-ever matches on campus on Feb. 29, earning 3-2 wins over Pepperdine and LMU — both top-10 opponents — at the Center of Effort Beach Volleyball Challenge. And wherever the fans found their footing, they made sure the Mustangs heard their support.




    
     "The crowd was insane," Miric remembers. "It was just amazing, the energy. I felt like the whole crowd was on my side, I felt like they were actually helping me play every point through, which was so awesome. Hearing them cheer for us every single point and just playing under the lights, we just had such a blast, and I remember turning to Todd in-between the two matches; I turned to him and said, 'This is the best moment of my career!' "

     The day began with the Mustangs receiving their championship rings from winning the Big West title last April.

     "That was just a really special day," Mustang head coach Todd Rogers recalls. "Starting off with the opening of our own facility that's one of the premier facilities, hands-down, in the nation — there are, maybe, one or two other facilities that can compare — and then to be receiving Big West Championship rings, a first in the program's history, the ambiance and everything that was going on; that whole afternoon into the evening was just really special."

     Rogers recounted how the crowd gathered around the fifth court, where the overall outcome would be decided when Adlee Van Winden and Josie Ulrich claimed a third set 15-11.

     "That's really what college volleyball is all about. Everyone plays their part and you work really hard and then it boils down to the last match on court whichever-one-it-is, and everyone's crowding around and cheering and yelling and screaming, and it really creates a unique atmosphere," Rogers says. "That was totally applicable on February 29th, and I think all the fans that were there and stuck around into the late evening on a colder night recognized, 'Man, this ambiance, the electricity in the air, is phenomenal.' "

     Cal Poly was hoping to make a return trip to the NCAA Championships, where the program faced the Rainbow Wahine and Florida State on national TV in 2019. On March 12, however, the season — along with every other spring sport — was cut short when the NCAA cancelled all schedules due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

     The Mustangs will head into their next season with a combined 63-21 overall mark (a .750 total winning percentage) in duals the past two-and-a-half years.

     Their state-of-the-art complex, made possible by the generosity of donors such as Bill and Cheryl Swanson, among others, will be waiting for them.

     The weekend after the home openers at the COE Challenge, the Mustangs kept rolling in Phoenix, picking up a sixth victory in a row. Miric and her partner, Mariah Whalen, had established some momentum of their own, building a six-match winning streak on the way to earning a Conference Pair of the Week award.

     Including her first two years, with Torrey Van Winden and Crissy Jones, the streak pushed Miric to a combined 57-16 (.781) altogether.

     In the ensuing Monday's AVCA Top 20 poll, the Mustangs leapfrogged USC to move up to No. 5 in the national rankings, just one spot back of the program's highest ascent ever, No. 4 in the country during Miric's freshman year.

     Only LSU (a unanimous No. 1), UCLA, the Seminoles and UH were voted above Cal Poly in the final 2020 poll. Rogers viewed his squad as a team that had the potential, "a legit outside shot at winning the national championship. I thought we had that talent level, and if everybody came together and we had the right teams in the right places, I really do think we would've had that possibility."


California Dreamin'


     Growing up in Thornhill, Ontario, just north of the heart of Toronto, Miric first tried sand volleyball tagging along with her older sister to a summer camp. In those first few drills, Miric impressed the older players, and quickly built confidence to head into club competition. By 13, she competed for Canada at her first international tournament in Hermosa Beach.

     Then in 2014, Miric teamed with Sophie Bukovec at the FIVB Junior (U-21) World Championships in Larnaka, topping a duo from Lithuania in the final to win Canada's first-ever gold medal.

     "I think just getting the affirmation that I was getting to represent my country and training with some of the best players kind of made me feel like, 'OK, I've got this, and I think I can take it even further,' " Miric said. "So it's been my goal to take it further for a really long time."

     As Miric continued to rise up the ranks in her provincial program, almost 3,000 miles away, yet only a few hours north of that first international tournament, Cal Poly welcomed Rogers — a 2008 Olympic gold medalist — in 2016.

     Later that summer, after being contacted by prospective student-athletes from Canada, Rogers had a conversation with another Olympic medalist, John Child, who in 1996 had won bronze at the Atlanta Games. Child, also from Toronto, spoke highly of Miric, who was already looking to play in a warmer climate at the next level.

     "After doing some research, I was pretty certain it was quite a lovely place to go to school," Miric said of San Luis Obispo.


'Exactness With Every Touch of the Volleyball'


     Miric's impact was immediate, as she teamed with Torrey Van Winden to win the conference pairs championship at Queen's Beach in Honolulu as a freshman, as both were selected to the 2018 All-America Team.

     "Intangibles," Rogers answered when asked what helps enable Miric's success. She was one of only two freshmen to make the All-American list in '18. "Competitiveness. And just a feistiness."

     As far as "the actual skillsets themselves," Rogers adds: "Exactness with every touch of the volleyball, whether that's passing, being exact in where she passes to; setting, being really exact in where she's trying to set; and even attacking, being very exact in where she's trying to put the ball. She has the ability to be extraordinarily precise in all those skills."

     Miric would repeat as an All-American as a sophomore (one of 10 players around the country to do so) paired with Jones, now an assistant coach with the Mustangs.

     Looking back on winning the Big West title almost a year ago to the day, Miric says she still gets goosebumps when describing the moment teammates Vanessa Roscoe and Brayden Gruenewald sealed the conference final at Zuma Beach, tallying back-to-back points after a tie at 19-all in a decisive third set.

     "I think what made it so awesome was that we made history for the school, just knowing we had never done it before," Miric said. "All the grinding and hard work throughout the season, and just seeing it finally all come together and then having been there the season before, it was so special and such a cool experience to see."


'Navigating a New Environment'


     After the cancellations, universities also shifted to virtual instruction, with courses taught entirely remotely.

     "As it is with everybody around the world, it's obviously a really weird time," Miric said. "We don't know exactly how to manage it, but we're managing."

     While Miric said "it's devastating that our season was canceled," she added "I didn't want to dwell on it for too long, so it's been about just moving on and figuring out how to navigate this new kind of environment."

     The NCAA recently cleared the slate for all student-athletes affected who competed in the spring, meaning that Miric still has two full seasons of college beach volleyball eligibility left.

     She's keeping her long-term options open, considering future possibilities of pursuing the AVP Tour, possibly going into the business world, or entering a master's degree program.

     In fact, in light of the extra year allowance by the NCAA, Rogers has now encouraged the whole team — from freshmen to seniors — to look into the potential of grad school opportunities, calling the possibilities of combining a master's program with playing beach volleyball "a small, but still a silver, lining."

     Rogers, too, has adjusted to the separation, attending regular Zoom meetings and staying in touch with players via email, text or phone.

     For now, Miric explained that she's putting the extra time to use by seeing it as an opportunity, even picking up an extra class this quarter.

     A Business major, Miric, who is fluent in Serbian, not only made the Big West All-Academic Team in 2019, but also earned Conference Commissioner's Highest Scholar-Athlete Honors for 2020. Her concentration in the curriculum is Quantitative Analysis, which focuses on using data to analyze and forecast economics.

     Rather than fly home to Toronto for the quarantine stage, where the three-hour time difference would apply, Miric chose to stay in San Luis Obispo to help focus on her studies.

     "I really love it here," Miric says of the Central Coast, crediting her teammates, local hiking and weather as factors for her decision to remain in place while finishing her degree.

     Then, after a brief pause, she adds with an upbeat resolve, "SLO's not a bad place to be quarantined."


@CPMustangs • #RideHigh

By Donovan Aird • File Photos Courtesy of Owen Main (Fansmanship) / Alma & Nathan Nybakke (Photography 805) / Wally Nell / BigWest.org ©