Ryan Chartrand

Saying Jon Stevenson was a little hot under the collar Saturday night might be a bit of an understatement, in more ways than one.

Not only was the fourth-year head coach of the Cal Poly women’s volleyball team watching his players trudge through arguably their worst game in Big West Conference play during his tenure, but the temperature in Cal State Northridge’s Matadome was less than accommodating.

“The team was relaxed, and I sensed they were in a good mood,” Stevenson recalled. “We walked into the Matadome and it was probably – conservatively – 90 degrees in there. There was no air conditioning.”

The aura was a harsh contradiction of an old college-volleyball adage.

“They say indoor volleyball’s always: ’72 (degrees) and fluorescent is the weather forecast for the day,’ but it’s different,” Stevenson said.

Clearly, the Mustangs were thrown off.

“They didn’t want to start warming up,” Stevenson said of his players. “We just started so poorly it was as though they didn’t want to play that match.”

Cal Poly lost the first game 25-14, scoring its fewest points in a Big West opening game in the Stevenson era – during which the Mustangs had won 29 of their past 31 conference contests, highlighted by back-to-back Big West titles.

“We were at a real tough moment, and if we didn’t turn it up – if we didn’t start playing – we would’ve really regretted that,” Stevenson said.

Cal Poly responded, taking the next three games 25-18, 25-22, 25-23.

“It was just this knock-down, drag-out, uncomfortable battle, and I refused to take my shirt and tie off no matter how hot it got in there, just as a show of rebellion,” Stevenson joked.

Junior setter Hailey Fithian said the unexpected, jarring snag that was “like playing in a sauna with long-sleeved jerseys on” reinforced the importance of not taking things for granted.

“The elements were crazy – we weren’t used to playing in that sort of environment,” she said. “We didn’t play at all how we can, but once we were used to being soaking wet the whole time and saw past that, we just focused on what we do well as a team. Next time it might be a really hot gym or a big crowd trying to tear us apart. You’ve always got to be flexible to adapt to that kind of stuff.”

Fithian, Stevenson said, did as well of a job as anyone in that respect.

“Hailey Fithian had the match of her career,” Stevenson said. “It was her night.”

Fithian, a Thousand Oaks native who started two matches in 2005 before redshirting in 2006, distributed a match-high 39 assists and amassed a career-high five kills on a .571 hitting percentage.

She wasn’t the only one extracting a memorable night from the sweltering test of resolve.

Senior middle blocker Jaclyn Houston had nine kills and hit .533.

“Jaclyn Houston absolutely took over the match offensively at the end,” Stevenson said. “She made some offensive moves I haven’t seen her make, ever.”

The Mustangs weren’t the only Big West member to have been jolted by what Stevenson called “a bit of a wake-up call.”

Long Beach State, then ranked 22nd in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll – three spots above Cal Poly, the conference’s prohibitive preseason favorite – was swept 25-23, 25-17, 25-23 Friday at Pacific, which entered the match just 1-8.

“I was surprised a bit,” Stevenson said. “It would be considered an upset, certainly.”

The Tigers have benefited from the return of sophomore outside hitter Svenja Engelhardt, a Sinsheim, Germany product whose 64 aces last season set a Pacific single-season record and placed her third in the country in per-game average.

The 24th-ranked Mustangs (7-6, 2-0) host UC Davis at 7 p.m. Friday and Pacific at 7 p.m. Saturday – both in Mott Gym.

Cal Poly has been “developing really well” through working on its defensive support, Fithian said.

Other than the 49ers (11-3, 1-1) and Mustangs, the only other Big West team with a winning overall mark is UC Davis (8-7, 0-2), which was picked last in the conference’s preseason coaches poll after going 4-24 last year. UC Irvine (6-8, 1-0), picked to finish third, is yet to win two matches in a row.

“I really think that we have a very balanced conference this year,” Stevenson said.

And most conspicuous within it is Cal Poly, which won 18 of 19 a year ago before falling to Stanford in the regional semifinals of the NCAA Tournament and heading into this season with a No. 10 ranking.

“It seems like teams have nothing to lose when they play us,” Fithian said. “So they have some of their greatest matches against us. It’s a little difficult but it shows they respect the fact that we’re a good team.”

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