Lauren Rabaino

Expectations are as high as they’ve ever been for the Cal Poly women’s volleyball team.

Ranked No. 10 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association preseason poll, the two-time defending Big West Conference champion Mustangs open the season Friday at Oklahoma’s Hilton Nike Invitational.

After a 23-8 season in 2007, culminating in a regional semifinal appearance, talk circulated of a possible national-championship run this fall.

“There are a lot of things that have to come together in order for something that fantastic to happen,” Mustangs head coach Jon Stevenson said.

In order to make that happen, the Mustangs have adhered this summer to a strenuous practice regimen, which on some days has spanned 14 hours.

“They ran for over eight hours, and I didn’t hear a single complaint over the course of that day,” Stevenson said.

Cal Poly’s schedule features home dates against perennial powers Nebraska (Sept. 5) and Stanford (Sept. 20). Nebraska won the 2006 national title and Stanford was the runner-up in 2007.

“The idea that we’re playing both Stanford and Nebraska on our home floor is amazing,” Stevenson said. “They’re two of the most formidable teams to play.”

Altogether, the Mustangs, unanimously predicted in the Big West coaches poll to repeat as the conference champion, will face 11 teams that qualified for the NCAA Tournament last season.

“I created the schedule with the strategic intent of trying to really test our team with non-conference opponents,” Stevenson said. “That way, when we get to the Big West, we’ll really be ready. It will be downright embarrassing to me if we don’t pack Mott Gym – it wasn’t easy to get Nebraska to come here. They sell out every match. For them to travel is a big thing.”

Mustangs senior opposite Kylie Atherstone, the two-time defending Big West player of the year, said having Stanford and Nebraska come to Mott Gym is a testament to the progress Cal Poly has made.

“It is huge for the Cal Poly program,” she said. “I feel amazed that I could be a part of it. We used to be the team in awe of playing Stanford, and now it’s reversed and they’re coming here.”

In July, the NCAA announced several rule changes affecting the 2008 women’s volleyball season. One is the number of points required to win games one through four – now 25 instead of 30. The fifth game will be played to 15.

“The best team should still win,” Stevenson said. “But the number of points to score to win is now less, which creates a greater chance for an upset.”

The reason for the point changes, according to Stevenson, was a lull in excitement between 20 to 25 points, and the idea of coming into conformity with how the sport is played internationally. Stevenson argued that the rules weren’t broken before, so it didn’t need to be changed.

“We better become good at playing games up to 25 points,” he said. “We’re going to put our energy into winning games to 25 points instead of 30, with six to seven rotations instead of eight to nine rotations.”

The Mustangs will begin play at the Oklahoma tournament at 10 a.m. Friday against Wichita State, before a 3 p.m. match against Michigan State.

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