When Cal Poly Volleyball needed a new head coach, Athletics Director Don Oberhelman knew to promote Caroline Walters immediately.
“We didn’t even do a search,” Oberhelman said. “[Walters] was clearly ready at that point … that was one of the easiest hires I’ve ever made.”
Walters was entering her 11th year with the program and spent the previous two seasons as associate head coach.
She was the team’s choice as well. Within an hour of learning the job was open, junior outside hitter Maia Dvoracek sent an email to Oberhelman in support of promoting Walters.
“We wanted to make sure that we had someone that we trust and love and who gave their all to the program at the head of it,” Dvoracek said. “So I was ecstatic. I couldn’t stop smiling once I heard she got the job.”
Walters was inheriting a championship-winning team that was returning a two-time Big West Player of the Year, multiple All-Big West honorees and the conference’s co-freshman of the year. While Walters was the associate head coach from 2017-2018, the Mustangs also made two straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
But in Walters’ first year, things did not go as planned. Cal Poly Volleyball did not win the Big West Championship.
Walters spent her first year as head coach preparing her team for these moments. She introduced a motto, adapted from the U.S. National Women’s Volleyball Team, that helped the team push past obstacles:
“So what? Now what?”
Trial by fire
While Walters’ ascension to head coach marked a shift in her career, it was not the first time she led the program. In 2011, Walters served as Cal Poly’s interim head coach after six-year head coach Jon Stevenson was dismissed. In a 2010 report, Stevenson had been accused by current and former players of unprofessional conduct and sexual harassment.
“That one was very much baptism by fire,” Walters said. “Throughout, you had to act like you knew what you were doing. And I was 23-and-a-half. As a head coach of a Division I volleyball program.”
Walters, only in her third year as an assistant coach, stepped into the head coaching job just four matches into the season.
“The culture of our program was not in a good place then … and when you change culture within a program, it takes a lot of time,” Oberhelman said. “So we were having some struggles, probably the student-athlete experience wasn’t what it should’ve been.”
“You just try to survive,” Walters said. “You try to get them to understand that their work still matters.”
While the Mustangs only won 12 matches that season, Walters has since been instrumental in changing the direction of the team.
“When players come to Cal Poly, you learn that you want to play for her and you want to fight for her,” Dvoracek said. “You want to work for her above everything else.”
In 2012, Sam Crosson was named Cal Poly’s head coach and Walters returned to an assistant coach. After promoting Walters to associate head coach in 2017, the duo led the Mustangs through a historic season.
Cal Poly finished with a program-best 27-3 overall record and a perfect 16-0 run in the Big West Conference. That same season, Cal Poly won the conference title for the first time in 10 years. The following year, the Mustangs went back-to-back as Big West Champions after only losing one conference match.
“She was the coach that was always really, really hard on us,” senior outside hitter Nikki Jackson said. “But as a head coach, she still has that will to fight and she took a more compassionate approach towards us.”
Walters continued Crosson’s team culture, allowing every player and coach the freedom to share their ideas, according to assistant coach Jason Borchin.
“I think that’s why everything didn’t really skip a beat this season,” Borchin said. “I think what makes us great as a staff: No one is afraid to voice their opinions.”
“So what? Now what?”
Walters was named Cal Poly Volleyball’s new head coach Dec. 22, 2018. She got married nine days later.
“So it was get a new job, finishing touches of a wedding, get married, go on a three-week honeymoon and then come back to just, everything,” Walters said.
Walters reminded herself of the motto she had for both herself and the team: So what? Now what?
“Things happen in life, and you can control some of that, but really what we can all control the most is how we respond to those events,” Walters said.
This motto proved to be relevant throughout the season.
While Cal Poly was picked to win its third consecutive Big West Championship in the preseason coaches poll, Walters knew the team might fall short of that prediction. Reigning Big West Player of the Year, senior outside hitter Torrey Van Winden, did not play in the entire regular season due to post-concussion syndrome.
However, Walters helped bring out a new star to power the Mustangs’ offense: Maia Dvoracek.
Dvoracek averaged 4.25 kills per set on the way to a 2019 All-American third team honor in her breakout season.
Cal Poly was dominant at the beginning of conference play, winning its first six matches.
“Win after win, you get a little comfortable,” Dvoracek said. “So she’s just like, ‘you guys haven’t earned anything yet. You got a win. So what? Now what? You have to win another one.’”
The wins were especially abundant inside Mott Athletics Center. Cal Poly went 11-0 at home and now holds the nation’s longest home winning streak at 32 games, which began in 2017.
“I think it only speaks about what this place does for us,” Walters said. “It’s something that we didn’t talk at all about as a group in terms of that winning streak, but it’s just happened over the course of three years of hard work.”
However, the Mustangs stumbled on the road. They dropped matches at UC Santa Barbara, Hawai’i and Long Beach State. As a result, Hawai’i finished one win ahead of Cal Poly to take the 2019 Big West Championship.
“It’s not easy,” Walters said. “But [the team’s] goal throughout the year was to go to a Sweet 16. And to be in the match to do that, we were where we wanted to be.”
After finishing with a 21-9 overall record, Cal Poly received an at-large bid to its third consecutive NCAA Tournament. But then came another twist in Walters’ first season as head coach — Van Winden was cleared to play. To bring her back into the lineup, Walters would have to sit Nikki Jackson, who had played the entire season.
“That was the hardest moment of the year for me, because she had done everything that we had asked for us at that point,” Walters said. “It was just something that was outside of her control.”
The Mustangs quickly found themselves facing elimination in their first round match versus Georgia on Dec. 6. Georgia won two close sets, 25-23 and 25-22, to start the best-of-five series.
“I think the first thing she said in the game break, down 0-2 to Georgia, was ‘So what? Now what? We can do this,’” Borchin said.
“She was just like, ‘okay, you had five chances, but now you have three. You have to go win three, because it doesn’t matter what just happened. We’ll move forward,’” Dvoracek said.
Cal Poly moved forward, winning three straight sets to complete a reverse sweep.
“It was never a what if,” Walters said. “It was a, ‘we are going to accomplish this.’”
Cal Poly advanced to the second round and were one match away from their goal: the Sweet 16. However, the No. 3 seeded Stanford quickly swept the Mustangs en route to claiming the 2019 NCAA Championship.
“It’s the lesson I continue to learn in coaching, ‘expectation is the root of all evil,’ you need to keep your focus as narrow-minded as possible,” Walters said. “I think with [Stanford] winning a national championship, as time has passed, that result has started to sit a little easier. You lost to the best team in the country.”
The road ahead
While the team will lose five seniors to graduation, four All-Big West players will return with West Virginia transfer Kristina Jordan. Of course, Walters will bring the experience of her hectic first year as head coach.
“Without her trying really, you want to work for her,” Dvoracek said. “She’s so integrated and loved in this program that I think every single person that comes in will feel that immediately. And if not, they get taught it real quick.”
In her debut season, Walters continued Cal Poly Volleyball’s recent success. Now what?
“I can take a deep breath now,” Walters said. “We’ve been through a full 365 days with this staff. We know what this looks like over the next nine months until we get back to hopefully being in that match again. And to make the Sweet 16.”