Ryan Chartrand

Off to its best start in conference play since 1985, the Cal Poly volleyball team is ranked 20th in the American Volleyball Coaches Association/College Sports TV poll.

But the Mustangs, who enter a crucial Big West Conference rivalry match against visiting UC Santa Barbara on Saturday at 13-4 overall and 5-0 in the Big West, may be even higher in terms of the postseason picture.

“Right now what we’re really excited about is if the NCAA Tournament was seeded today, we’d be ranked No. 1 in the Western District,” Stevenson said Tuesday. “If the tournament was seeded today, we’d be one of the top eight teams in the nation.”

The reason that might be a reality at the end of the regular season is largely because the AVCA/CSTV poll is not the determining factor in playoff seeding.

In fact, the NCAA uses a secret formula called the Ratings Percentage Index to determine what schools get seeded where. The RPI is largely based on strength of schedule.

That’s a fact Cal Poly learned the hard way last season when it was controversially left out of the postseason despite going 19-6 overall and third at 10-4 in the Big West. The conference sent six teams to the tournament in 2003 and 2004, but just two in 2005.

Any strength-of-schedule questions facing the Mustangs were likely jettisoned this season by virtue of the Mustangs’ wins over No. 8 Texas, No. 12 Hawaii and No. 20 Louisville. Cal Poly also has losses this season to No. 1 Nebraska and No. 19 Pepperdine.

“Right now, the algorithm that’s used to rank teams across the country, we’re not No. 20,” Stevenson said. “We’re much higher than that. I don’t know exactly where we are. I’ve heard as high as 12.”

Indeed, Cal Poly is ranked No. 12 in RichKern.com’s Pablo Ratings, which implement a widely acknowledged simulation of the RPI formula.

However, teams currently ahead of the Mustangs in the AVCA/CSTV poll include No. 3 UCLA, No. 4 USC, No. 5 Washington, No. 6 Stanford, No. 7 Cal, No. 11 Hawaii, No. 12 Utah and No. 17 Santa Clara.

It is uncertain how the Mustangs would stack up against those West Coast teams in a seeding argument because Cal Poly’s strength of schedule is better than some.

“The players are so excited about what has happened so far with their season,” Stevenson said. “We’ve been in the top 25 in the country since the first rankings came out. The only rankings we were not included in was the first preseason prognostication.”

Nonetheless, Cal Poly was second in the Big West preseason coaches’ poll. The respect was significant considering the conference currently has five of its eight teams with overall winning percentages above .500. That could come into play when the NCAA selection committee sits down to determine who will be seeded where.

The national prominence Stevenson’s program has attained is startling considering the Mustangs were only 5-24 overall and an embarrassing 3-15 in conference in 2004.

Cal Poly has risen from No. 25 to 23 to 21 and finally to 20 over the past six weeks. In his second year at the helm since coming over from St. Mary’s, Stevenson was the subject of a recent ESPN.com feature story on his history of rebuilding programs.

“We’ve gotten some national exposure,” Stevenson said. “I’m trying to build something the Cal Poly family can be proud of. To some degree, we’ve accomplished that. National prominence was one of the things that I promised when I took the job.”

Another important step in that process for the Mustangs occurs at 7 p.m. Saturday when the Gauchos (11-7, 3-2) visit Mott Gym. The first 150 students in attendance will receive free T-shirts.

Cal Poly already knocked off UC Santa Barbara in the Thunderdome by a score of 3-1 Sept. 23, ending the Gauchos’ 16-match home winning streak.

These are historic times for the Cal Poly volleyball program, which has six of its 10 remaining regular-season matches at home.

“I hope the student-body can understand the magnitude of what we’re doing and what these girls have achieved,” Stevenson said. “I’m just their coach. They’ve been incredible fighters.”

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