Patrick Trautfield

It didn’t take long for Cal Poly’s Kylie Atherstone and Chelsea Hayes to establish themselves Sunday at the Collegiate Beach Volleyball Championships in Crown Point Park at Mission Bay in San Diego.

Sophomore outside hitter Atherstone and junior setter Hayes formed a tandem that went 2-2 at the tournament, reaching the semifinals with a pair of upset wins before bowing out to Stanford.

“It was kind of a whirlwind,” Hayes said Monday night. “We found out about it a week ago. We had to get as much knowledge (on opponents) as we could and go down there and play.”

Atherstone and Hayes had the eighth and final seed in Pool A, but that proved little obstacle on the way to a 2-1 record in pool play. After opening with a 15-7, 16-18, 15-13 loss to top-seeded Nebraska, Cal Poly rattled off consecutive wins over No. 4 seed Minnesota (15-13, 15-10) and No. 5 seed Texas (27-25, 15-13).

In the semifinal round, the Mustangs drew the second seed from Pool B, Stanford. The Cardinal handed Atherstone and Hayes a 21-16, 21-12 loss in a match that spanned 34 minutes.

Nebraska’s Jordan Larson and Sarah Pavan won the tournament in an hour-long contest over Stanford by scores of 19-21, 23-21, 18-16.

“I think it was what we expected,” Hayes said. “We knew that we didn’t have that much time to prepare. We knew we could compete. There wasn’t anyone who blew us away.”

The tournament can be viewed via tape delay in separate installments on College Sports Television with semifinals scheduled to air May 18 and 19 and the championship match May 20.

Hayes said competing – and winning – against national powers on the beach is a sign of the times for Cal Poly’s volleyball program.

“I think it was really important for us to be invited to this tournament,” she said. “Cal Poly volleyball is becoming a big name. We’re getting recognition nationally.”

Cal Poly is coming off a 23-6 season in which it won the Big West Conference with a 13-1 record and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Mustangs finished 17th in the final American Volleyball Coaches Association poll, capping a season in which they reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002, won a tournament match for the first time since 2000, entered a national ranking for the first time since 1999, hosted a sub-regional for the first time since 1989 and won an outright conference title for the first time since 1984.

At the end of the historic campaign, Atherstone was named Big West Co-Player of the Year and Hayes first-team All-Big West.

Hayes said the biggest adjustment to beach volleyball as compared to the fall season is playing with only two people.

“Definitely just the fact there’s only two people,” she said. “You’re touching the ball every contact. You know you’re going to set it. I would just say the different conditions. You have the sun and wind factors in there as well.”

Atherstone, who led the Big West in kills (505) and was third in aces per game (0.35), parlayed her breakout season into a selection to the U.S. Women’s National A2 Team, which is the squad just underneath the women’s national team. She was one of only 20 collegiate players nationwide to make the A2 squad and practice at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., in March.

Of Atherstone, Hayes said: “Kylie’s an amazing player. She showed a lot of skill this weekend. I think we had the most heart of all the teams there. It was fun to compete and show how much we wanted to win.”

The scary part?

Atherstone and Hayes are only two of six returning starters for the Mustangs in 2007.

Having nearly completed its spring schedule, Cal Poly is already eyeing next season, in which the program feels earning the school’s first national title in a team sport since moving to the Division I level in 1994 is a possibility.

“It’s fun to see everyone improving from last season,” Hayes said of the spring season. “We still have a long way to go.”

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