This is the first of 12 stories previewing the top teams competing in NCAA beach volleyball this season:

History, for the Cal-Berkeley beach volleyball team, hinged on four total points in the middle of March. On consecutive days in Honolulu, Hawai’i, the Bears fell to the SandBows, 3-2 each time. In both matches, Cal had swings for the match. In the first, the Bows sneaked away with third-set wins on courts three and four, 18-16 in the third set both times. In the second meeting, a day later, Hawai’i pulled away on court four to win 17-15 in the third set, sealing the match in another heart-wrenching fashion.

The difference between winning those two matches and not was the difference between a 22-9 season and a 24-7 season. The difference between having two marquee victories on the resume and two quality losses.

And, most likely, it was the difference between going to Gulf Shores, Alabama, for the NCAA Championship or beginning summer early.

“Given that only eight teams go (to the NCAA tourney), we knew that was a really big turning point,” said Cal defender Iya Lindahl, a senior from San Diego. “We knew it was big when we lost that.”

But it’s big just how big those matches are. This is not the same Cal team Lindahl began playing for three years ago. That squad went 13-12. It was never a threat to make it to Gulf Shores.

This is a Cal program that is now firmly knocking on the door, with two losses by margins that cannot be narrower being the difference between making the playoffs and not.

“The excitement level is really high,” said Lindahl, who went 20-8 in 2019. “This is our biggest year that we’ve been able to make it to NCAAs. We missed it last year by two matches that were decided by two points. I think that this year we’ve grown in talent, we have a lot of returning people. We just fine-tune a little bit and we’re right there.”

The Bears are already right there, in the thick of an increasingly competitive Pac-12. In 2018, Cal logged its first win over USC, and in 2019, the Bears finished third in the Pac-12 Championships. Eight starters return, while freshman Ainsley Radell, who competes for acting head coach Derek Olson’s club team, is expected to make an immediate impact.

“We’re definitely better,” said Olson, who is filling in while longtime head coach Meagan Owusu takes maternity leave with triplets. “The last two years we’ve been really inexperienced and really young and we’ve done pretty well, finishing around No. 11 each year depending on the poll.

“This year we got a couple seniors that are going to contribute, and we’re really heavy on juniors, so we’re just making that transition from inexperienced to experienced. I think that’s going to pay off for us.”

Highlighting the returners is 5-11 Mima Mirkovic, a junior from Irvine who went 19-9 on court one a season ago and, as Lindahl eloquently put it, “just hits the crap out of the ball.”

Lindahl, who finished ninth at this year’s AVP Manhattan Beach Open, is expected to team with Mirkovic at No. 1, and Olsen is excited about the prospects of Jordan Polo (a sophomore from Danville, California) and Caroline Schafer (a junior from Orinda, California) at No. 2, Maddie Micheletti (a junior from Manhattan Beach) and potentially freshman Ainsley Radell (Moraga, California) at 3, Alexia Inman (a junior from Manhattan Beach) and Madison Dueck (a senior from Santa Cruz) back on 4, and a number of players who could see time as the No. 5 pair.

“The great thing is that our lineup is pretty set,” Olson said. “The last couple years I’ve had to tweak it all the way up till season and then even during season tweaking a lot but this might honestly be a year where our one through four just stays all year. Chemistry is just so important.”

The consistency, the experience, the chemistry — all of it could very well add up to the two points that made such a difference in 2019.

“We’ve really grown a lot,” Lindahl said. “We’re the class that has gotten to experience a lot of things with the program, like beating a ranked opponent and then beating USC, getting third at Pac-12s. All that is stuff that we’ve seen. This is the next progression.

“This is something that we’re ready for, that we’re here for, and we’ve had our minds set on it for two years now. We’re ready to go get it.”

Next up: No. 11 South Carolina

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