Tom Sanders

Central Coast native Chelsea Hayes is ready and setting for the Mustang volleyball team this season.

After two years as a Gael at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., Hayes has coincidentally followed her old St. Mary’s coach Jon Stevenson back to her home court. In the midst of the season, it’s clear: What was one school’s loss is now Cal Poly’s gain.

“I’ve come to know Chelsea as someone who is a great person to have on your team,” said Stevenson, Cal Poly’s current head volleyball coach. “She’s the kind of person you want to build a program around – She’s just a model person – she sets a foundation of behavior that goes beyond the volleyball court.”

Though Stevenson calls himself lucky for being able to coach Hayes during her career at St. Mary’s and now her new volleyball career at Cal Poly, Hayes said she’s the luckier one. With Stevenson as her coach once again, the transition from court to court has been a smooth process.

“I know what he expects as far as work ethic,” she said. “I knew the drills and stuff like that, so it made it a little easier – it was something that was familiar.”

“When I first came to college, I was a little stunned because I came from this little town and I was the star,” Hayes said, laughing. “Then I came to my college team and I wasn’t the best player anymore. So it was kind of a reality check.”

In fact, Hayes will be the first one to call herself St. Mary’s “bench warmer.”

So after her second season as a Gael, Hayes returned to the county where she fell in love with volleyball: San Luis Obispo.

As a graduate of Atascadero High School, she played three years of varsity volleyball, Hayes has Mustang volleyball in her blood. Her parents Bev and Deiter Hayes are both volleyball players who once attended Cal Poly and played for the university in 1978.

The summer before Hayes’ seventh grade year, her father began coaching her at home on their sand court. Having her father as a coach never posed a problem, she said.

“You know how some parents and kids don’t get along with their parent coaches, well it was never weird like that,” she said. “He treated me equally.”

Even now, Hayes looks back at her experience with her father as a coach in a positive light.

“My dad was one of the best coaches I’ve ever had,” she said. “He taught me how to play the game.”

From there, Hayes’ volleyball career gained momentum and by her senior year in high school, Hayes earned the title of County Player of Year in 2002. With this title, Hayes became a hot topic among the volleyball community, eventually sparking the interest of then St. Mary’s coach Stevenson.

“It was after my first season at St. Mary’s when our scholarships were increased from 11 to 12,” Stevenson said. “It was fairly late in the whole (scholarship) process, but I was aware of Chelsea from my contacts on the Central Coast.”

Stevenson soon recruited Hayes for the 12th scholarship slot. Hayes quickly realized, however, that snagging the scholarship was just one of a few obstacles before her.

“She found herself competing with another person in the same grade,” Stevenson said, referring to St. Mary’s current junior setter Mandy Bible.

Because Hayes was next in line behind Bible, Hayes rarely had any time on the court. Though Stevenson said Hayes and Bible ended up becoming good friends and the “heart and soul” of the team, Stevenson knew Hayes should have more court time. Towards the end of her second season, Hayes was getting restless.

“At St. Mary’s it was frustrating because it’s difficult to practice every day and not see any court time,” Hayes said. “The school is really nice and I loved my team there, but it wasn’t quite the playing situation that I wanted.”

Deiter Hayes remembers the situation his daughter grappled with.

“She had a great situation up there (at St. Mary’s) with her scholarship, so she was taking a risk coming down here. But she had a week or two with the new coach and at the end of it all, she referred to Jon as a genius,” Deiter Hayes said. “She told me, ‘If I’m going to get better, I’m going to have to follow Jon.’”

Advice from Stevenson before his departure and his move to Cal Poly, mixed with her own frustration, got Hayes considering a transfer.

“He came down here and this is a volleyball town, so people started talking and I heard there might be a chance for me to come and play here,” Hayes said. “Basically I wanted to be on the court and he is a really good coach so I knew that he would make me the best player I can be.”

Stevenson’s move from St. Mary’s to Cal Poly, however, had other motivations.

“Why I left is somewhat complicated,” Stevenson explained. “I felt that no matter what we did, volleyball was not going to be appreciated at the level it should be (at St. Mary’s).”

So after passing up job offers at two PAC 10 and one WAC school, Stevenson decided on Cal Poly.

“It was coincidence, or you can call it the lining of the stars, but I was coming down here to play golf when a friend mentioned the job opening (at Cal Poly),” Stevenson said. “I was really fortunate.”

More importantly for Stevenson, however, was that his hard work with the volleyball team would be appreciated in the Central Coast.

“There has always been a volleyball culture here,” Stevenson said. “This has always been a great volleyball school.”

Now back together, Stevenson and Hayes are a double-team to reckon with.

“The advantage is that she understands the system I want to run offensively and she also knows our defensive systems,” Stevenson said.

As a recent transfer, Hayes is a kinesiology sophomore and though she may be set back a few units in terms of graduation, Hayes feels she has only moved forward in her career in volleyball.

“When I coached Chelsea she was a very good volleyball player, but Jon has now taken her to another level,” Deiter Hayes said.

“I’ve become more confident on the court and more relaxed,” she said, emphasizing that her growth has a lot to do with her increased on-court experience.

Playing for familiar faces is also a plus, she added.

“It’s really nice to have my family in the stands because they didn’t get to see me play for two years,” Hayes said. “Also a lot of people in the community found out that I came back here and so they’re coming out to watch, so it’s cool to be able to play in front of them as well.”

In the future, Hayes hopes to play for even bigger crowds.

“I want to play professional beach volleyball,” she said. “That would be the ultimate dream. I don’t know if it’ll ever come true, but it would be the greatest thing that could happen.”

If playing with the AVP doesn’t happen, however, Hayes would like to pursue a career as a physical trainer or nutritionist.

This weekend the volleyball team plays UC Santa Barbara at Santa Barbara on Saturday at 7 p.m.

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