Frank Stranzl

To be successful in athletics, bonds must be built. While relationships on the field are often forged by sweat and pain, the best teams have close relationships that stretch beyond the practices and the games.

The camaraderie shared by one group of former Cal Poly volleyball players was rare. To this day, six of the players from the best team in the school’s history take an annual “girls’ weekend out” – a brief but memorable vacation to a mutually decided upon location.

One of the ladies called the weekend an “absolute commitment. It’s not even an option.”

However, the trip this year has been cancelled. A hit-and-run driver struck one of the former Mustangs, Carol Tschasar-Daniel, on April 8 at Dana Point, Calif., leaving the mother of three with a broken neck and pelvis as well as a nearly severed leg, among other injuries.

Daniel was jogging with several friends when William Todd Bradshaw veered into Daniel, 41, and Stacy Neria, 34, sending the pair to Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, Calif. with life-threatening injuries.

Last year, the group went to Las Vegas. In previous years the group has traveled back to San Luis Obispo on several occasions as well as several other spots in California. This year the group was destined for Scottsdale, Ariz., but instead will spend their “girls’ weekend out” with the recovering Daniel.

Daniel, an All-American volleyball player at Cal Poly in 1986, has been through numerous surgeries since the accident.

As Daniel recovers, friends and family have paid close attention to a blog kept by her husband on CaringBridge.com. The site has seen over 25,000 hits since the accident.

“Carol has made significant improvement in the last few days in terms of getting off the morphine and breathing on her own. As of Monday, she is basically off the machine and will soon be fitted with a diaphragm to speak with,” the latest entry by Craig Daniel said.

The 6-foot middle blocker played volleyball at Cal Poly from 1983-1986 during what some call the “golden years” of the program. She holds school records for solo blocks in a season (75), career solo blocks (197) and total blocks in a season (206). She played on two of the best teams the university has seen. In 1984 and 1985, Cal Poly saw time at the No. 1 national ranking while racking up a combined 63-16 record.

However, it wasn’t her talent that caught the attention of teammates and coaches.

“She was just a lioness of a competitor,” said Mike Wilton, Cal Poly volleyball coach from 1979-89.

Wilton, now the men’s volleyball coach for the national powerhouse University of Hawaii, also recalled Daniel’s raw talent. Daniel walked onto Cal Poly’s campus as a basketball player with a strong work ethic and a desire to learn the intricacies of volleyball. Although she wasn’t the best player on the team, her competitive drive propelled her to succeed.

Kelly Van Winden, whose maiden name is Strand, played with Daniel in 1984 and 1985. She remembered the long, exhausting workouts Wilton put his team through and the tenacity Daniel always showed.

At one pre-practice run on the track, Van Winden pushed the pace with the intent of tiring Daniel out. Van Winden had never beaten Daniel in a run, but was determined her strategy would pay off.

Sometime into the run, Van Winden noticed Daniel huffing and puffing, perhaps tiring from the pace. Meanwhile, Van Winden was feeling fine, coasting along – she finally had Daniel beat.

Van Winden stayed with Daniel during the run, giving words of encouragement periodically during the workout. However, Daniel was unwilling to accept defeat.

“We got to the last 220 or so and I’m starting to feel it,” Van Winden said. “Then she gets her second wind. She flipped on the afterburners and took off.”

Former Cal Poly and beach volleyball teammate Claudia Trudeau was a freshman when Daniel was a junior on the 1984 Mustangs’ squad. Trudeau, now a close friend and one of the six involved with “girls’ weekend out” trips, had high praise for the gritty competitor.

“She was the one who would kick your butt if you weren’t working hard enough,” Trudeau said.

Daniel’s admirers didn’t stop at Cal Poly. Kathy Gregory, one of the best women’s beach volleyball players in the late 1970s and early 1980s and current coach of UC Santa Barbara, described Daniel as “a young colt” when she entered Cal Poly. “And she left a mature competitor.”

Gregory and Daniel competed against each other in one beach contest – the Santa Monica Tournament in 1988 – but Gregory got her perspective of Daniel from her job at UCSB. Gregory has coached at UCSB since the team formed in 1974 and her teams were staunch rivals of Central Coast neighbors, Cal Poly.

“The Magnificent Seven”

Wilton amassed a 279-129 record at Cal Poly, but his best years came in 1984 and 1985. Both squads were ranked No. 1 in the country for several weeks, each featuring seven players that shared the bulk of the playing time and, during the 1985 season, a local sportscaster for KSBY composed a feature that mimicked a 1960 western movie, “The Magnificent Seven.”

Mitch Massey, now the senior vice president of sales, marketing and advertising for Heritage Oaks Bank in Paso Robles, Calif., was impressed by the close bonds the team shared as well as the national recognition the Mustangs received despite playing just seven players.

“It’s the type of group you really see only once in a lifetime,” Massey said.

The seven were Carol Tschasar (Daniel), Lynn Kessler (Blevins), Kelly Strand (Van Winden), Vera Pendergast (Nelson), Ellen Bugalski (Ferreira), Dede Bodnar and Claudia Hemmersbach (Trudeau).

The end of the clip had the seven walking out of Mott Gym as if they were leaving a saloon.

“We must have retaken that shot 15 to20 times because of the way Carol walked,” Van Winden said. “It was too heavy, not feminine enough. I think Carol cost us more time than I did, but it was just really funny.”

The 1984 squad had three All-Americans and four in 1985. Both teams made the NCAA playoffs, the 1984 squad falling in an upset to Fresno State in the opening round of the Northwest Regional and the 1985 team lost to eventual national champions University of the Pacific in the finals of the Northwest Regional.

“Carol (Daniel’s) era represents the best that Cal Poly volleyball ever was and it’s what we aspire to be – to reach that level of greatness,” current Cal Poly coach Jon Stevenson said.

“Girls’ weekend out”

Several of Daniel’s former teammates will be in San Luis Obispo this weekend for an exhibition match between UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly at 4 p.m. in Mott Gym, a game that will accept donations and raffle off prizes to raise money for Daniel’s medical expenses.

Trudeau, who partnered with Daniel in seven beach volleyball tournaments in 1989, has spent many hours organizing the event alongside Stevenson. In the wake of the tragedy, supporters have surfaced from many areas of Daniel’s life.

Five of Daniel’s biggest believers will try to make the journey to San Luis Obispo. Although there won’t be a “girls’ weekend out” this year, the memories of rafting, kayaking, hiking and other experiences over the years remain.

One such memory stands above the rest for Lynn Blevins (Kessler). It came as Daniel planned to enter her first triathlon.

Daniel, now an avid triathlete, had one major obstacle before she could participate – she couldn’t swim. As a part of one trip back to San Luis Obispo, Trudeau set up a swim lesson for Daniel and the six women set out for the pool at 8 a.m.

“She could barely keep herself afloat,” Blevins recalled with a chuckle.

While her friends ate bagels and sipped coffee, the whole time laughing from the side of the pool, her instructor shouting instructions as her head bobbed in and out of the water between strokes, Daniel continued to swim.

It’s that dedication, that refusal to quit that Blevins and the other four believe will drive Daniel to a full recovery and allow her to once again enjoy a “girls’ weekend out.”

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