As the Cal Poly volleyball team departed Saturday afternoon the sun was shining, but the scenic drive down U.S. Highway 101 quickly transformed into a frigid atmosphere. Choppy surf, fog as far as the eye could see and falling temperatures set the tone for the road trip to UC Santa Barbara.
Long story short, it was a cold day along the Central Coast, a precursor to the rivalry game to take place at Santa Barbara’s Thunderdome.
The Mustangs and Gauchos have played 54 matches over the years, of which Santa Barbara has won 37 after Saturday night’s match. Whereas Cal Poly was the beacon of light for Big West volleyball in the early 1980s, UC Santa Barbara has been a tale of consistent dominance, and currently holds the spotlight Cal Poly once had.
The Gauchos have won the Big West three years running and a fourth is well within reach. Coach Kathy Gregory is the winningest coach in Big West history.
As for Cal Poly, coach Jon Stevenson said the Mustangs are capable of achieving and surpassing what the Gauchos have achieved in the past two decades. He foresees rapid development and the emergence of Cal Poly onto the national volleyball scene.
To Stevenson’s credit, there is already a staunch improvement from a year ago. The Mustangs won just five games in 2004, far worse than their 13-5 record this season.
Tradition versus a burgeoning program; UCSB versus Cal Poly.
A lighthearted exchange between Stevenson and Gregory brought a smile to Stevenon’s face, but the grins disappeared as the whistle blew.
Cal Poly jumped to a 4-2 lead, but the Gauchos responded with a five point run to lead 7-4. Parity was clear as the teams exchanged blows.
At 10-10, Vanessa Gilliam sent a thunderous spike down the center of the Gaucho’s side to gain a point for the Mustangs only to see UCSB’s star player, Janine Sandell, return the favor in kind. Sandell, an intimidating player with broad shoulders and muscular legs, took a set on the left side of the court and powered the ball into a pair of Mustang blockers for the point.
The momentum began to swing to Cal Poly’s side just as Gregory called a UCSB timeout to regroup down 17-15.
The Gauchos weren’t done. Cal Poly’s Arleen Paperny served the ball long bringing the score to 26-23 in favor of the Mustangs and began a seven-point Gaucho run. The crowd came to its feet after Sandell tapped a ball over a trio of Mustang blockers to knot the score at 26, a defining moment as the Mustangs failed to regroup.
The Gauchos took the next point to lead 27-26 and a much less jubilant Stevenson was forced to use another timeout.
The momentum had swung and the Mustangs, who looked the better team up to that point, were lost on the court. The Gauchos took game one 30-27.
Five Mustang serving errors and seven kills by Sandell played out to be the team’s downfall.
When Cal Poly beat the Gauchos at Mott Gym earlier this season, it was smiles all around as the upstart Mustangs seemed unfazed by the prowess of the three-years-running defending Big West Champions. A different Mustangs’ team took the court for game two – the team was discouraged and flustered.
The Mustangs couldn’t find a rhythm early in game two. It was all UCSB at the outset. The Mustangs trailed by as many as twelve before making a game of it.
An uncharacteristic error from Cal Poly libero Kristin Jackson said it all. Santa Barbara’s Emily Hendrickson sent a serve directly to Jackson who stuck her arms out, expecting to bump the ball toward the Mustangs’ frontline, but instead the ball glanced behind her and onto the floor. Jackson’s look of disgust showed the Mustangs’ frustration.
The Mustangs mounted several comebacks only to be silenced by a Sandell kill, a controversial call and a mishit. Going into the break, it seemed as if the Mustangs would be taking an early bus ride home.
The Gauchos won game two 30-22.
Stevenson arrived with his sport coat back on and a disappointed demeanor.
The game wasn’t 10 points old before Stevenson’s coat came off for a second time, and his fiery character followed. The Mustangs started game three with matched enthusiasm, beating the Gauchos on several rallies with an acrobatic display of digs and assists.
But serving errors and Cal Poly’s inability to mount a consistent attack meant another frustrating game.
“You’ve gotta want it, you’ve gotta want it,” Stevenson pleaded to his team with the Mustangs down 11-8 during the third game.
But the team didn’t respond, dropping the final match 30-23 and leaving the team with an emotional void to solve before upcoming games at Long Beach State and UC Irvine.
“We didn’t really have the courage tonight,” Stevenson said after the game. “Courage is really a key component in this day and age and I don’t think we had that. What you saw was the weaknesses of a program in transition.”
Gregory said the game plan was to keep the ball away from Cal Poly libero Kristin Jackson. Gregory thought she could exploit a weakness on the Mustangs’ left side.
After the win, Gregory had plenty of positive comments about Cal Poly and the team’s turnaround.
“It’s marvelous,” she said. “I mean they’ve got the big setter (Chelsea Hayes), the lefty (Kylie Atherstone), and (Vanessa) Gilliam coming back was huge. And they believe.”
Before the game, Stevenson said his team had a great chance of winning, but in the wake of the loss, he sees his team at a crossroads.
“I think we’re going into our most difficult weekend at Long Beach and Irvine,” Stevenson said. “We need to beat Long Beach first, and if we win I think we’ll beat Irvine. But if we lose, I think we’ll be in trouble.”