Repeating as Big West Conference Champions was never the Cal Poly volleyball team’s sole goal this season. The Mustangs have had their eyes set on the 2018 NCAA tournament throughout their dominant season — and now they know their first round opponent.
The Mustangs (25-2, 15-1 Big West) will play the University of San Diego (15-12, 13-5 West Coast) in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday, Nov. 30 at 6 p.m. in USC’s Galen Center.
“We knew that we were going, but to see it on the screen and hear it on national television is always something really special,” junior outside hitter Torrey Van Winden said. “I think that last year left us really hungry to get past that second round. We’re excited for this tournament, we feel a little more experienced and a little more excited to go into it.”
The No. 13 ranked Cal Poly team qualified after winning the Big West Conference Championship title by sweeping UC Riverside and Cal State Fullerton to close out the regular season. The Mustangs also recorded the best start in program history at 19-1 and had a peak national ranking of No. 11 earlier this season.
Last season’s team also saw similar success with an undefeated record in Big West play, only to fall 3-1 to UCLA in the second round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Torrey Van Winden said she believes last year’s team faltered due to its limited mindset going into the post-season.
“I think that was a mistake from last year, our goal was just to win those first two rounds and that limits yourself,” Van Winden said. “This team has its mindset on a national championship.”
The first round of the NCAA Tournament will be a unique test for the Mustangs. The team will play in a venue, and against an opponent that the program has not seen since 2012.
“I think that some of the biggest challenges are it’s a neutral court and it’s win or go home,” head coach Sam Crosson said. “It really helps having the leadership of [Torrey Van Winden] and [Adlee Van Winden] and [Katherine Brouker], three players that have been here before, who have the experience and know what the atmosphere is like.”
The Toreros are no strangers to the unique pressure of the NCAA Tournament, as the program is making its ninth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance after earning an at-large bid. San Diego finished third in the West Coast Conference, behind the no. 4 seeded BYU and Pepperdine, and ended the regular season on a two-game losing streak. Last year, San Diego were defeated 3-1 by USC in the second round of the tournament.
Despite Cal Poly’s statistical advantage over San Diego, the Mustangs are not looking past the first round yet.
“I think that [the Toreros] are really disciplined, good athletes and they’re a tough first round for us,” Torrey Van Winden, who faced San Diego in her freshman year at UCLA, said. “I think it’s better to have a tough first round to prepare you for that second round. It keeps us focused on one game at a time. There’s no overlooking anyone.”
A win over San Diego would advance Cal Poly to the second round to take on the No. 11 seeded USC or Samford on Saturday, Dec. 1 at 7 p.m.
“I think that we’re going to level up a lot better than last year,” Torrey Van Winden said. “I think that’s just because as a program, our coaching staff and our girls in general knew that, throughout our training and the season, we couldn’t just train to win against the Big West schools, we had to train to win against the schools that we’re going to see.”
Torrey Van Winden earned the Big West Player of the Year honor after ranking third in Division I players with 5.07 kills per set in the regular season. Freshman setter Avalon DeNecochea received a Co-Freshman of the Year award, as she averaged 10.32 assists per set and lead the Big West with a .295 hitting percentage. The Mustangs’ offense is also bolstered by senior outside hitter Adlee Van Winden’s 2.84 kills per set average and freshman middle blocker Meredith Phillips, who averages 1.8 kills in 86 starts.
The Mustangs are 15-2 on the road this year. Torrey Van Winden said she believes playing the opening round of the NCAA Tournament at USC will be beneficial for the team.
“I’m just excited that we’re going some place that’s not going to be a BYU or a Wisconsin or something that’s, right off the bat, super, super aggressive in your face type fans,” Torrey Van Winden said. “We are really good when we have to create our own energy and build our own atmosphere on the road, so I think we’re going to have the opportunity to execute that.”
With the Mustangs preparing to face their toughest opponents of the year, Crosson emphasized what the team will need to do to overcome the unpredictability the NCAA Tournament brings — believe.
“It’s a biggie for me, for them to understand the concept of belief,” Crosson said. “It’s one night. It’s not a conference season, we’re not playing 20 matches against these teams. It’s who’s ready to play and who can just go out there and play as if there’s nothing to lose.”