Sayra Reyes

It was something in the stars, head coach Jon Stevenson said, that allowed his star setter Chelsea Hayes and him to become Mustangs together following their transfer from Saint Mary’s College four years ago. But anyone who has watched the No. 19 Cal Poly volleyball team perform this season can attest that astrology played no part in its success – the women can flat-out play.

After two victories this weekend over UC Riverside and UC Irvine, they’ve secured their second consecutive NCAA tournament berth and Big West Conference title and recorded their second-consecutive 20-win season.

Cal Poly (21-7, 15-1 Big West) is riding a 12-match winning streak, the longest since the program won 15 consecutive contests in 1981. The Mustangs, who’ve recorded a Mustang conference-winning percentage record (.938), have also posted the school’s first undefeated home regular season record with an 8-0 mark.

“It feels great, better than last year. I don’t know, we just did it again,” Hayes said following a 3-1 (27-30, 30-18, 30-22, 30-16) victory over UC Irvine on her senior night.

Prior to the match, seniors Hayes and libero Kristin Jackson were honored alongside their coaches and families in front of a crowd of 1,306 (not bad on the day of a football game).

“It was emotional, but it just gave us that much more fire to come out and play,” Hayes said of the pre-game events.

“It hasn’t really hit me yet that I’m almost done with my senior year. I don’t really want it to hit me yet, because I don’t want to let my emotions get me, but it was great to be recognized,” said Jackson, who is one of 24 Division I athletes to tally more than 2,000 career digs.

Stevenson was emotional as well. He mentioned how much his two seniors will be missed next season and spoke of their work ethic.

“They’re two people who stand out, who never take a day off. They go hard every day and every play,” he said.

A quick and easy 3-1 (30-15, 30-17, 30-32, 30-24) victory over UC Riverside Friday night assured the Mustangs that they would be heading to the big dance for the second straight season, something that hasn’t been done since the program posted nine straight appearances from 1981-89. Although the Riverside victory was reassuring, their outright conference title wasn’t finalized until they defeated UC Irvine.

Stevenson explained that a solo championship opposed to possibly sharing the title with Long Beach State, which was just half a game behind Poly going into the weekend, was “a black and white issue.”

“We win outright and we maintain our RPI and our chance to be a seeded team in the tournament and with that our chance to host and then with that our chance to go to the Sweet 16,” he said.

Hayes, who posted match-highs in the assist column in both contests, 54 against Riverside and 44 against Irvine, agreed with Stevenson.

“We play really well at home and if we could get a host here again and pack this gym, it would be great,” she said.

Jackson, who had 22 digs on Friday and 24 on Saturday, mentioned the sell-out crowd at last year’s NCAA Tournament game in Mott Gym and said, “SLO is a great town, great place to host a tournament. The community is great, the fans are great, so hopefully that’s what (the NCAA Tournament Bracket Committee) is gonna’ base it off of.”

Stevenson mentioned that the NCAA has certain criteria when deciding on host sites.

“The NCAA has to look at things and say, ‘If (they) award us the bid, will (we) pack this house?’ And I’m certain we will,” Stevenson asserted.

He went on to say that his team “won the right way” against good competition, especially in its final game against UC Irvine.

Although the team came out sluggishly in game No. 1 against the Anteaters, most likely due to the touching senior-night opening, players made adjustments on defense as they set a 2007 regular season program record of 46 total blocks, and then won the next three games.

Junior middle blocker Jaclyn Houston issued 15 rejections, the highest Big West total this season and just two less than Poly’s record. Junior outside hitter Ali Waller led the Mustangs with 15 kills and also had eight blocks while UC Irvine’s freshman outside hitter Kari Pestolesi led all players with 20 kills.

Junior opposite Kylie Atherstone, current and six-time Big West Player of the Week, recorded her 16th double-double of the season with 14 kills and 17 digs. Sophomore outside hitter Gaby Rivera, who recorded five of Poly’s 10 aces, and freshman middle blocker Dominique Olowolafe, who had seven blocks, contributed eight kills each.

The team will practice Monday and Tuesday and take a break for Thanksgiving. “I think we need some time to relax and be with our families and come back charged and ready to go,” Hayes said.

With the NCAA Tournament ahead, Jackson explained, “In the Big West, we’re the only ranked team right there. So all those teams, this is their only chance to play a ranked team. . But in the tournament, we’re gonna’ be playing top teams that have been top in their conference . so we’re expecting to put everything out on the line.”

Stevenson commented on the difficulty of the NCAA West Region, which includes teams like Washington, Stanford, UCLA and USC.

“If we do well, we’re gonna have that match that is to knock off one of the big boys on the block . and that will be our moment,” he said. “That’s what we’ve worked so hard for ever since the last ball dropped in here against Cal last year.”

Although such teams will prove challenging, Stevenson said, “We hope that we’re playing up.”

The declaration of the 2007 NCAA Tournament field will air on ESPNU at 5 p.m. Nov. 25

The 16 first- and second-round host sites and days of competition will be announced then.

“We’ll be together, that’s for sure,” Stevenson said of the whereabouts of his team on the Sunday that issues his team’s playoff fate.

The Mustangs will begin first-round play anywhere between Nov. 29 and Dec. 2.

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