Though its historic season ultimately ended with a disappointing 3-1 home loss Saturday night to Cal in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Cal Poly volleyball program feels like it has plenty to look forward to.
And with all but one starter returning and perhaps the strongest influx of talent in program history on the way for next season, who can blame the Mustangs for feeling that way?
“I see a very bright future for this program,” said outside hitter Candace Milton, the lone graduating starter for Cal Poly. “I have a lot of confidence and faith in the remaining teammates. Everyone here is amazing. Cal Poly is only going to go up from now on.”
The Mustangs have already made a meteoric rise to national prominence.
After a 5-24 season in 2004, Steve Schlick resigned as head coach and Jon Stevenson was brought in with a growing reputation for rebuilding programs.
While at the helm of Sonoma State from 2000-01, Stevenson brought the Seawolves from 6-20 to 22-11. Stevenson then moved on to St. Mary’s, which from 2002-04 he molded from a five-win team into a team that reached the round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament.
Now the same turnaround is happening at Cal Poly, which was 19-6 overall and third at 10-4 in the Big West Conference last year.
Cal Poly finished 23-6 and 13-1 in conference this season and fell Monday from No. 14 to 17 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association/College Sports TV poll. This season saw the Mustangs reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002, win a tournament match for the first time since 2000, enter a national ranking for the first time since 1999, host a sub-regional for the first time since 1989 and win their first outright conference title since 1984.
Much of the revival of the volleyball program can be credited to Stevenson’s unique approach. The Mustangs emulate the men’s Brazilian National team on offense and the men’s U.S. National team on defense.
“It’s been amazing to see what the program is capable of under new guidance,” Milton said. “I’m just glad to have been a part of it. Jon’s been huge. He brought a winning attitude from the beginning. He pretty much guaranteed a winning season to start off with and that’s why we really liked him and appreciated his outlook on the game. I had high expectations and high hopes and he definitely delivered.”
For his part, Stevenson hopes the Mustangs’ breakthrough season bodes well for next year.
“This is new, uncharted waters,” Stevenson said of the tournament. “Sometimes you have to go there and get a sense for what it’s like. The next time it’s something that we’re going to take and run with as opposed to taking it all in and saying, ‘wow, this is really great.’ We’ll make it great.”
The Mustangs will not have to get acquainted with each other much next season.
Cal Poly returns six starters, including sophomore outside hitter Kylie Atherstone, the Big West Co-Player of the Year who averaged 4.56 kills per game this season.
Second on the team’s kills-per-game list this season was another sophomore outside hitter, Alicia Waller (3.79).
Ashleigh Bertoni (2.11), a freshman outside hitter.
Other returnees include starting junior setter Chelsea Hayes (12.69 assists per game), starting junior libero Kristin Jackson (5.06 digs per game) and starting sophomore middle blocker Jaclyn Houston (1.5 blocks per game).
“Because we’re returning so many people, so many people know what we are all going through,” Atherstone said of the tournament loss. “This feeling that I have right now, everyone is feeling it. We just can’t wait. I want to start lifting and getting ready for spring.”
On top of all the returning talent, some newcomers to the lineup might challenge for playing time, and not all of them will be freshmen.
Gabrielle Rivera, a 6-foot-3 outside hitter who transferred from Florida State, will be coming off a sophomore season in which she redshirted. Rivera, who competed with the Puerto Rican Junior National team in 2003 and 2005, started 12 of 23 matches for the Seminoles in 2005.
Additionally, Cal Poly’s recruiting class includes 6-1 San Luis Obispo High senior middle blocker Ashley Adams, who led the 17-10 Tigers with 17.5 kills per match this season. She is ranked the 36th-best high school senior in the nation by PrepVolleyball.com.
The Mustangs also signed 6-foot middle blocker Dominique Olowolafe of East Lansing, Mich., who is 39th on the same list.
In all, the Mustangs return 14 players who were either on the active roster or redshirted this season and have three true freshmen on the way.
All this coming off the program’s most wins in a season since going 31-8 in 1985.
Cal Poly won 16 of its last 18 matches this season.
“This is how you build a program into a national champion,” Stevenson said. “You have to take steps.”