Frank Stranzl

Would I travel two hours to watch a volleyball match? The old me would say, “You’re jokin’, right? Hell no!”

But that was before I witnessed Cal Poly’s upset win over UC Santa Barbara on Sept. 24 at Mott Gym. Since then, I’ve had a change of heart.

Whether it was the effortless, yet booming spikes of Vanessa Gilliam, the spirited and dynamic defense of Kristin Jackson or the casual but competitive nature of the team, I was drawn in.

After the game I asked Cal Poly’s head coach Jon Stevenson if his team had a chance to win the Big West. Stevenson’s response was much what I expected it to be. He was humble and realistic, though he cited the win as a landmark victory for the blossoming program, he alluded that either Long Beach State or UC Santa Barbara would be the champion this year.

And let’s face it, Stevenson’s assessment was probably right- at least for the moment. The Mustangs had a successful non-conference campaign, but lacked wins over big-name programs. Not to mention the team won just five matches last year. Who could have expected Cal Poly would be one game behind the first-place Gauchos with less than half of the season remaining?

Stevenson may have been wary of answering my question wholeheartedly at the beginning of the season, but he now talks about Saturday’s game as a key game for the Mustangs. Stevenson thinks the team has a shot at beating the Gauchos again, and he thinks the team can win the Big West. Not next year, not three years down the line, but now.

There is something about this team, something that sparks an interest. This is a special team, a special story. Whether or not the team wins-out and, in doing so, earns the program’s first conference title since 1984, this team will be remembered as successful.

And that brings us to this weekend.

There will be much hype surrounding the football game between No. 3 Cal Poly and No. 10 Montana this week, and rightfully so. But there is another big game brewing on the horizon that will be battled closer to home this weekend.

Though neither Cal Poly nor UC Santa Barbara currently grace the volleyball national rankings, this weekend’s game has all the makings of a timeless classic.

First, this is a classic David vs. Goliath battle. It’s last year’s conference champion (three years running) against last year’s worst. Santa Barbara might have underestimated the Mustangs in the team’s first meeting. Maybe Cal Poly is flat out the better team. We’ll find out on Saturday.

What’s more, this is a geographic rivalry. Just two hours of coastline separate San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara. The rivalry might not possess the same fervor of Duke-North Carolina basketball, but it’s still a big game on the schedule, and you can bet the Gaucho fans will be out in full force.

This game is also significant to the conference standings. If the Mustangs win, they have a realistic chance to win the conference. For Santa Barbara, a win means a sigh of relief and some breathing room at the top of the standings (though Long Beach will still be nipping at the heels). Cal Poly is realistically out of contention if they lose on Saturday.

To be quite frank, this game is shaping up to be one of the most important games in the past two decades of Cal Poly volleyball, since the glory days in the early ’80s when Cal Poly was the mecca of collegiate volleyball.

Stevenson believes the team can win. The players believe. And now it’s my turn. I’m jumping on the bandwagon. It’s time to see Cal Poly for what it is: a blossoming volleyball program on the verge of a miraculous and unlikely comeback.

Would I travel two hours to watch a volleyball match? To see one of the most important games of the past two decades of Cal Poly volleyball, the answer is yes.

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