After a year and a half of uncertainty, guidelines, restrictions, and shutdowns, Cal Poly fall sports are back.
The football, volleyball and men and women’s soccer teams are ready to get back into action for the Mustangs, just in time for the 2021-22 school year.
In the spring, the Cal Poly football team decided to play a shortened six-game season against their Big Sky opponents after missing out on a normal fall season in 2020. However, the program opted out of the season three games in, as they only had 49 players to compete, which fell below the Big Sky minimum.
The team is now preparing for a full fall season in 2021 and has had its first fall camp in two years.
“It is incredible not only to cut the spring season short but the culmination of not being around each other last fall either,” head coach Beau Baldwin said. “The energy level is high, and the players put in a lot of work in the spring and summer to get to this point.”
During their spring season, the Mustangs went 0-3 with losses to Southern Utah, UC Davis and Eastern Washington. However, they expect to see a bigger improvement with more time to get healthy and prepare.
“We were not happy with our performances in the spring,” senior linebacker Matt Shotwell said. “Having this time to have a full fall camp and offseason, I think you are going to see a different product than you saw on the field during the spring.”
Baldwin agreed with Shotwell, mentioning the strength of the team now compared to just a few months ago.
“We are in a better position physically and mentally to have a better opportunity at some of those results that were not necessarily coming in the shortened spring season,” Baldwin said.
Outside of fall camp, the Mustangs have prepared for their first fall season under Baldwin through off-season conditioning and player-ran practices. Due to this preparation and practice, the team has seen a lot of progress both physically and mentally in the eyes of Baldwin and Shotwell from where they were during the spring season.
Physically, the team has seen significant growth in speed, size, muscle, and endurance, according to Baldwin. In addition, the Mustangs continue to grow mentally with a lot of work in meetings and studying the system.
“The biggest thing that stands out is how far ahead of where we were [during the spring],” Shotwell said. “With Covid-19 kind of going out the back door and fully competing again without the fear of having to get shut down or having a shortened season, it is pretty exciting to have a full senior campaign.”
After the Big West Conference canceled both a fall season and potential spring season for volleyball, the Cal Poly volleyball team is scheduled for a full season in 2021.
The Mustangs’ opening match on Aug. 27 marked the first time they have played a competitive volleyball match since Dec. 7, 2019.
“I have been counting the days, so today (8/26/2021) is day 628 since we have put on our Cal Poly jersey and competed which is just crazy,” junior middle bumper Meredith Phillips said.
Although the team has not played a competitive match in over a year and a half, the Mustangs have prepared for a potential season throughout 2021.
With the absence of a spring season, the team is focused on a full fall season in which they are picked to finish second behind Hawaii in the preseason Big West Coaches Poll.
“The buy-in of our girls for months and months without competitive matches has been tremendous,” head coach Caroline Walters said. “They were unwavering in their ability to show up daily and stay committed to the process of training not knowing when that next match will come.”
For this season, the Mustangs are welcoming 13 newcomers, including three redshirt freshmen, three transfers and seven true freshmen in addition to their eight returning players from the 2019 roster. Despite a lot of players fresh to the program, the team has meshed well together early on.
“You have the returners who have not played in over 600 days who have fire under our butts to just go out and work so hard because we have gotten our season taken away from us,” Phillips said. “The returners have high standards for these new players. The newcomers have met that standard to work hard and push to our full potential.”
While the Mustangs return First-Team All-Big West selections Meredith Phillips and Avalon DeNecochea, All-American Maia Dvoracek will miss this season due to a knee injury she suffered in the spring.
“When she got hurt it was devastating because she was a huge part of our team, and she still is,” Phillips said. “I think that everyone has had to take on a bigger part in this program in different ways whether that be on or off the court.”
Outside of Dvoracek’s injury, the Mustangs will welcome an advantage in “Mott Magic” as Cal Poly expects to see fans in their home stands once again.
“I cannot speak to what this community brings in terms of a home court advantage for us,” Walters said. “If we did play in 2020-21, we would play without fans in the gym and that is unimaginable.”
Despite not playing a regular season game over the past 21 months, Cal Poly men’s soccer managed to find ways to stay focused, in shape and in rhythm in preparation for the start of the 2021 season.
The program opened its preseason training camp on Aug. 10, featuring a squad with six regular starters from the 2019 roster.
In the spring, the program competed in a four-game spring exhibition season, allowing the Mustangs the opportunity to play other schools for the first time in over a year.
However, from injuries to freshmen playing their first game in Division 1 soccer, the small season resulted to be a test for the program.
“A lot of [freshmen] broke down,” senior defender and team captain Josh Graham said. “I felt the morale was pretty low honestly, it was kind of a stressful time especially for myself being one of the only guys who’d been starting from the year before with a brand new team. But I feel like we’re past that now and more than ready to go with some great additions this year.”
Graham said the new additions to the squad have not only been added to complete the roster, but to actually “make an impact and make players compete for a starting position.”
In addition to the increased amount of training sessions in the weight room, Graham said the Mustangs have been focusing heavily on learning how to play as a “possession-based team” to create chances in the attack.
In the 2019 season, Cal Poly managed to score only 19 goals in 17 games resulting in approximately one goal per game. This is a trend that Graham and the team want to change.
“I think that’s what we’ve really focused on, as we’ve been solid defensively the last couple years,” Graham said about improving on offense. “It’s going to come down to whether we can create those opportunities and goals. If we can start popping off two or three goals a game, it’d be amazing.”
As a senior captain, Graham said winning the Big West Conference is “all that matters right now,” being that this year will be his and his senior teammate’s last chance at a collegiate title.
He also wants the team to prove themselves on the pitch with the boosted confidence they have gained entering the season.
“I’m excited for this Fall to showcase how much of a team we are,” Graham said. “We’ve all been there for each other through the highs and lows of these past few years, and I really hope we can just showcase how strong the bond is on and off the field.”
Over the past few months, the Cal Poly women’s soccer program was only playing against each other in intrasquad matches every Friday, training weekly and hitting the weight room.
With the start of the fall 2021 season now underway, the Mustangs finally feel a “sense of purpose” to play when it comes to competing on the pitch, according to junior forward Brooke Rubenstein
“I honestly think we’re just coming out fired up,” Rubenstein said. “We’re one of the few conferences that didn’t have a season in the winter, so I think we’re coming out guns blazing.”
Rubenstein said she is looking forward to seeing how the squad will progress thanks to everything the players learned from each other over the past year and a half without games.
During the pandemic, Rubenstein said the team took part in many virtual activities to engage in team bonding as well as a high number of at-home training sessions.
However, their morale was crushed when they received the news of the 2020 season’s cancellation.
“I think at that point it really hit everyone,” Rubenstein said. “That was pretty devastating, to be honest.”
Once the team was able to return back to campus, they hit the ground running, practicing every day in small pods, allowing the freshmen to get the opportunity to learn from the returning players.
During their 2021 exhibition season in the spring, the Mustangs were able to play other schools, including rival UC Santa Barbara twice. This season was mainly to keep the teams in playing condition with a few competitive games, as they hadn’t played since the fall of 2019.
The ups and downs of 2020 for the women’s soccer team, despite being unfortunate, provided the team with some valuable insight.
“Something that I took away from it is to expect the unexpected and be ready for anything,” Rubenstein said. “If you can control what you can control, that’s the best mentality to have out there and I think that’s a huge takeaway for our team.”
Looking ahead into the remainder of the season, Rubenstein said that due to the large size of this year’s current roster, the competition within the squad will be a tough battle for starting spots.
Along with keeping them motivated, this will allow the team to be able to learn how to “compete consistently” in every part of the pitch for the entire 90 minutes, according to Rubenstein.
“I just think people are excited to finally play and it feels good to have a purpose out there, which is something that we’ve really lacked in the past year and a half,” Rubenstein said.
Nonetheless, she is hopeful that the youth of the roster can work in the favor of the program in their search for a Big West Conference title.
“Ultimately there’s one goal and one goal only and that’s to win the Big West,” Rubenstein said.