The Cal Poly volleyball team’s season came to a close in the first round of the NCAA Tournament with a 3-1 loss to the University of San Diego (19-25, 18-25, 25-23, 22-25).
The Toreros made their ninth straight NCAA Tournament appearance, while the Mustangs made their 16th appearance in program history.
For the first time in 10 years, the Cal Poly volleyball team appeared in the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back years. The Mustangs’ chances of repeating last year’s first round win took a big hit as Big West Player of the Year, junior outside hitter Torrey Van Winden, was not able to play after being placed on concussion protocol 12 hours before the match.
“When we found that out, obviously it’s devastating, heart-breaking,” senior outside hitter Adlee Van Winden said. “She puts up numbers that are crazy in our conference and for our team, and not only that, she holds our team very accountable.”
“When we found that out, obviously it’s devastating, heart-breaking”
Head coach Sam Crosson said he was proud of the way the team responded and fought throughout the match.
“To be able to learn that someone of the caliber of player that [Torrey Van Winden] is and what she’s done for the program this year, to be able to find ourselves in a potential fifth set, within 12 hours of learning that, I think speaks volumes to this group,” Crosson said.
Cal Poly finished the season with a record of 25-3 overall and 15-1 in Big West Conference play.
“I think I can look back and be proud of everything that this program has done,” Adlee Van Winden said. “Obviously, sad that it’s over, but overall happy that it happened and so happy that I was able to be a part of this program.”
Without Torrey Van Winden, Cal Poly struggled on offense and were held to a season-low .157 hitting percentage.
Senior outside hitter Adlee Van Winden did her best to make up for her sister’s absence by recording a team-high 19 kills. Freshman setter Avalon Denecochea dished out a match-high 41 assists and freshman middle blocker Meredith Phillips added nine kills.
Neither team was able to gain momentum early in the first set. The Mustangs and Toreros traded points until the score was tied at 18-18. Then, the Toreros broke away, going on a 4-0. Adlee Van Winden broke up the Toreros’ run with a kill to soften the Mustangs’ deficit to 22-19, but the Toreros quickly continued their streak. San Diego’s Roxie Wiblin made back-to-back kills for the Toreros’ 25-19 set win.
The teams exchanged points again early in the second set, but the Toreros broke through with a 6-1 run that the Mustangs were never recovered from. Cal Poly was kept to only 18 points, their lowest in all four sets. The Toreros’ Lauren Fuller scored nine kills in an eventual 25-18 win to take a commanding 2-0 lead and force match point.
“For the first two sets we were still trying to get acclimated to what it was, [University of San Diego’s] offense in the first two sets was up there, and going in you know that, it’s a hallmark of their team, it’s a high-octane offensive, historically good offensive team.” Crosson said. “I thought we did a very nice job of settling down in the third and fourth sets.”
San Diego started the third set with an early advantage over at 7-4. Cal Poly responded with a run to force a 10-10 tie. Adlee Van Winden recorded four kills and also forced consecutive errors by San Diego through two serves, giving Cal Poly its first lead of the set at 12-10.
The Mustangs’ momentum continued as they eventually took their largest lead of the match at 22-17. San Diego mounted a comeback attempt, cutting Cal Poly’s lead to 24-23. A kill by Madilyn Mercer gave the Mustangs the 25-23 set win.
“We came to the conclusion that there was no other way than playing as a team and doing what we do day in and day out. We just had to trust and believe in the process and the hard work that people put in,” Adlee Van Winden said. “Obviously it is a big loss but I think the only mentality that we allowed ourselves to have is that we could win this game without her.”
At the start of the fourth set, Cal Poly scored the first point of the set off of a kill by Avalon Denecochea. It was the first time a Mustang opened the scoring all match. The score remained close until the Mustangs went on a 6-0 run to take the lead at 10-6. The Toreros then took control, as three kills by Lauren Fuller and five errors by Cal Poly allowed San Diego to take a 14-12 lead.
For the rest of the match, Cal Poly was never able to retake the lead. Down 22-18, the Mustangs attempted to continue their season with a 3-0 run through a kill by Meredith Phillips and errors by San Diego.
However, the Toreros did not let up, responding to kills by Philips and Dvoracek to keep the San Diego lead at 24-22. The Toreros’ ninth block of the match forced the Mustangs’ 11th error of the set, ending Cal Poly’s season with a 25-22 set loss.
With Torrey Van Winden not playing, a lot of young players were asked to step up and pick up the slack in the match. For freshman middle blocker Meredith Phillips the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament will be an experience she will always cherish.
“It’s definitely been a whirlwind, it’s been so surreal too. I never thought that I’d be here, playing with this team in this arena in this environment,” said Phillips. “I’ve loved every second of it, I’ll never take it for granted.”
For the two seniors on the team, Adlee Van Winden and Katherine Brouker, their collegiate careers may be over, but their impact on the team will be remembered for years to come.
“I think it comes down to hard work, and a really amazing culture that Cal Poly has created within its volleyball team,” Adlee Van Winden said. “In that locker room at the end there, every single person is in tears and I think that just comes from how much work has been put into this program, how special it is, and how much it means to every person that is part of it.”