Mia Jerkov - Berkeley's Big Catch

Sept. 2, 2003

by Bob Rose

BERKELEY, CA - Forgive Mia Jerkov if she is still adjusting to life in Berkeley.

When you grow up in Split, Croatia, you clearly are from another time and place. If not another planet. An ancient port city of 250,000 residents, Split was once the home of Roman Emperor Diocletian. In fact, the remains of Diocletian's opulent 3rd Century palace are still a frequent gathering place for the city's youth.

So to Jerkov (pronounced YAIR-cove), the Campanile Tower probably seems like it was built only yesterday. After all, when you're from a city with ancestors that date back to the Roman and Greek empires, your perspective can get a little jaded.

In more recent history, Split has also become known as a hotbed for producing Olympic athletes. Perhaps three-quarters of the young men and women on the current Croatia national teams are inexplicably produced within the Split metropolitan area.

Is there a logical explanation?

'Everyone asks me that question,' said Jerkov, now a junior at Cal. 'We're always jumping around playing something - soccer, basketball, water polo on the beach. Plus, we eat a lot of fish. Maybe it's the fish!'

When Jerkov signed a National Letter of Intent to play for the Cal women's volleyball program two years ago, Rich Feller's thoughts were also about fish. Because figuratively, the Golden Bears' head coach knew he just had hooked one of the sport's biggest fish.

'My assistant coach, Lee Maes, first saw Mia playing in a Youth World Championship tournament in Madeira, Portugal, in 1999,' recalled Feller. 'When Lee returned home, he told me there were a lot of good players from Croatia. We wrote to four or five of them. Two wrote back and one was Mia.'

Jerkov continued to write back and respond to their letters. Feller's other assistant, Chris Bigelow, sent her a questionnaire.

'One of the questions on the form was, 'What's your dream?'' remembered Feller. 'Chris came to my office and showed me what Mia had written.'

In the blank, Jerkov had simply penned one sentence: (My) dream is to be (a) respectable person and (the) best volleyball player in the world.

For Feller, who had been searching for the final piece to a winning volleyball team, that one sentence was beautiful music to his ears.

Soon, the Cal coach received some grainy black-and-white video of Jerkov in the mail.

'The tape was in really bad condition,' he said. 'Mia looked about 6-10. When we saw her playing, we said, 'Oh man, if she can really do this against top competition, she's pretty darn good!''

Once Jerkov arrived on campus, Feller's hopes were soon realized. In his words, Cal's new recruit was, indeed, 'pretty darn good.'

Although her freshman year of 2001 was hampered by injuries - she was limited to eight matches due to tendinitis in both shins - Jerkov showed flashes of brilliance that suggested greater things to come.

Last season as a sophomore, the Croatian outside hitter experienced a breakthrough year. Leading the Pacific-10 Conference in both kills (578) and points (635.0), the 6-3, 160-pound Bear earned first team All-Region and All-Pac-10 honors. She started the campaign ablaze, winning Most Valuable Player recognition in three early-season tournaments, as Cal opened 2002 with a 9-0 record, sweeping all 27 games during that stretch.

With her mother, Dragica, in attendance at Haas Pavilion, Jerkov unleashed a school-record 39 and 38 kills on back-to-back nights against Washington and Washington State Oct. 17-18, combining for an unworldly 161 attempts in the two matches. Three days later, the mercurial star was named the AVCA National Player of the Week.

A dominant force that had been missing in years past, Jerkov elevated the Golden Bears to their best record (20-12) since 1983 and their first NCAA appearance since 1989. With Jerkov leading the charge, Cal beat six opponents that were ranked in the nation's Top 25 last season, and also extended nationally No. 1 ranked USC and No. 2 ranked Stanford to five games before finally succumbing.

'She's given us instant credibility,' said Feller. 'We have built the program to become successful, but clearly, she has accelerated the process. Mia has given us a role model to show all of our players that certain things can be done, regardless of the opponent we're facing. She's a teacher on the court and she doesn't hesitate to speak her mind. She sets very high standards and she expects herself and her teammates to reach those standards.'

One of her teammates, senior defensive specialist Jenna Grigsby, says the key to Jerkov can be summed up in one word, experience.

'Mia has so much experience, especially international experience,' shared Grigsby. 'All those matches she's played has made her a great all-around player. She's a great defender, a great setter, a great hitter and great blocker. She's proven herself to all of us. If we do our jobs, we know Mia will do hers. If it's game point, she's the one to go to.'

Mick Haley, head coach of the USC Trojans' 2002 NCAA volleyball champions, already ranks Jerkov among the elite players in the college ranks.

'Mia is a wonderful addition to the Pac-10 and she makes Cal a legitimate threat every time you play them,' said Haley. 'Even if you prepare for her, she will still battle you to the end. She's one of the top kids competing in the nation and I actually expect her to get even better. Her numbers last year should have given her serious consideration for the Pac-10 Player of the Year.'

While Jerkov failed to receive the conference's top award last year, she did land third team All-America recognition, becoming only the secondvolleyball All-American in California history and the first since Sylvie Monnet earned second team notice in 1983 (Monnet also was named first team All-America in 1981).

Jerkov's All-American status has provided added impetus to Cal's program, particularly in enticing other high school players to come to the university.

'Mia's success has allowed us to contact a higher level of recruit,' said Feller. 'It places us in a position where we don't just tell a prospect how great they can become at Cal, we can now show them.'

Considering Jerkov's bloodlines, it's no wonder that she's risen to early stardom.

Her father is Zeljko Jerkov, a seven-foot, former center on the Yugoslavian basketball team. He led his country to a silver medal at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, losing to the United States in the title game, and then propelled Yugoslavia to the gold medal at the 1980 Olympics in the Soviet Union, which the U.S. boycotted.

Jerkov, who was born in Cattolica Forli, Italy-where her dad was playing basketball at the time-has been known to square off against her gold medal-winning father in pick-up games when she returns to Split each summer.

'It's a family tradition to play one-on-one when I come home,' she admitted. 'He still beats everybody he plays. He just leans on me and I fall down. But I'm getting better. I only lost, 11-8, the last time we played. His time will come!'

Her Cal coach believes that Mia has not only inherited her father's skills, but just as importantly, her father's leadership abilities.

'It would be impossible for him not to have an influence on her, even if only as a reference and resource,' said Feller. 'I know she has great admiration for her father as an athlete and a man. It's part of why she's so willing to take responsibility. She wants to be a leader and captain of our team. I think that's the pride of being an athlete's daughter.'

Interestingly, Jerkov did not begin her sports career as a volleyball player. She started out as a swimmer and tennis player, not switching to volleyball until she was 13.

'Mia has exceptional footwork and hand-eye coordination,' added Feller. 'I think her early experience in tennis contributed to that. It also improved her arm movement and strength, which is so important in a sport like volleyball.'

As Jerkov blossomed as a young volleyball player, the Croatian nationalprogram began to take great interest in her.

'Mia was placed into Croatia's national pipeline,' Feller said.

Following her sophomore year in high school, Jerkov moved away from her parents in Split and spent her final two years at the High School of Language in Pula - a town located close to the best volleyball competition in the country.

'The approach to volleyball development in Croatia is more like figure skating,' added Feller.

When it came time for Cal to recruit the statuesque hitter, Feller soon learned that he would not be competing against other universities for Jerkov. Instead, it was the prestige and riches of professional volleyball that would cloud Jerkov's decision.

'I had a chance to play professionally in Italy, which is the best pro league in the world,' said Jerkov. 'I had offers from about 10 different teams. It was a tough choice, but I wanted to get a Cal education. This is something I couldn't get anywhere else in the world ... not in Croatia, Italy or anywhere.'

With appearances in the 2000 World Cup, 2001 European Championships and 2001 Junior World Championships already on her international resume - and the prospects of representing her homeland at the 2004 Olympics in Athens - she decided that professional volleyball could wait for a few more years.

Meanwhile, Jerkov is growing accustomed to her new surroundings in the Bay Area.

'I didn't imagine that the American lifestyle was like this,' she admitted. 'Everyone is working so hard. It's so organized. You need to push hard to accomplish your goals. In Croatia, we organize life a little differently. Everything is connected to family life. A job is just a thing you have to do.'

Back home, she misses her parents and two younger brothers, Marko (17) and Ante (six).

'It's very hard,' she revealed. 'I miss my friends, my brothers, my parents. But it's a normal process of being on your own. After awhile, you get over it. When I play volleyball, that's a cure for everything.'

Jerkov has begun to warm to many American customs, however. She especially enjoys the food ('I like the variety. There's food from everyculture. I really like the tacos.') and the shopping ('When I'm nervous, I like to go shopping. It makes me relax.').

Gregarious by nature, she has also made many friends at Cal.

'My teammates have been great,' she said. 'They've been so great to me. I grew up differently and they have been so patient with me. I have made many friends on the team and with athletes on other Cal teams like the Yugoslavians on the men's crew team (Filip Filipic, Ivan Smiljanic, Mladen Stegic and Nikola Vlaovic) and Jordi (Geli) on the men's basketball team, who's from Spain.'

Named Pac-10 All-Academic team honorable mention last year, Jerkov plans to pursue a future business career, with possible entrance into the Haas School of Business on the horizon.

'My parents are agents for a furniture firm in Eastern Europe that ranks among the top five in the world,' she said with obvious pride. 'They have stores in five countries. They buy their furniture from a company in Italy and I have already gotten involved in design decisions. It's my dream to join the business some day.'

But some day will have to wait for now, because Mia Jerkov and her Cal volleyball teammates have some big fish of their own to catch this year in the Pac-10.

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