Cal Poly volleyball head coach Jon Stevenson feels his team has had its best week of practice all season.
It couldn’t have come at a better time.
The Mustangs host Michigan at 8 p.m. today in an NCAA Tournament first-round match in Mott Gym. It is the first time Cal Poly will host a sub-regional since 1989.
“I feel like right now we can beat anyone,” Stevenson said Wednesday after practice. “.The last two days have been the best practices we’ve had all year.”
Seeded 15th in the 64-team field, Big West Conference champion Cal Poly (22-5, 13-1) must win today to advance to the second round, in which it would play either Cal or LSU on Saturday.
“We’re just going to focus on Michigan right now and not think about any of the other games,” Cal Poly sophomore outside hitter Kylie Atherstone said. “We’re working in practice (Wednesday) on where (the Wolverines) serve or where we should serve them, so we are definitely getting ready for them.”
Atherstone, the Big West Co-Player of the Year, averaged a team-high 4.5 kills along with two digs per game this season and also led the Mustangs in service aces (36).
Cal Poly junior libero Kristin Jackson said the Mustangs break down the season into three parts, and the NCAA Tournament is the final phase.
“Jon kind of describes it as three seasons – our preseason, then conference and NCAAs,” said Jackson, who leads Cal Poly with 4.98 digs per game. “Nothing else matters really in the past, it’s all what we do now.”
The past this season for Cal Poly includes the following feats:
Cal Poly won its first Big West title ever and first outright conference title of any kind since 1984, when it was part of the now-defunct Pacific Coast Athletic Association.
The Mustangs’ 22 wins are their most since going 22-11 in 1992.
Cal Poly’s .815 winning percentage is the second-best in program history behind only the 1981 team’s .837 mark.
The Mustangs entered a national ranking this year for the first time since 1999.
“Everything we’ve done this year is either on track or ahead of schedule in terms of what I had always hoped for this program,” Stevenson said.
Although they were seeded 15th Sunday, the Mustangs were ranked No. 14 in Monday’s American Volleyball Coaches Association/College Sports TV poll.
Three of the four teams coming to Mott Gym this weekend are in the top 16 of the poll – Cal Poly, 15th-ranked Cal (20-9) and No. 16 LSU (26-5).
“We’ve got a very difficult draw, every match we play,” Stevenson said. “We’ve got a very strong Michigan team. It’s not going to be easy.”
The loaded sub-regional is similar to the Mustangs’ nonconference schedule, which featured matches against No. 1 Nebraska, No. 8 Texas, No. 9 Minnesota, No. 12 Hawaii and No. 24 Pepperdine.
The Mustangs have not played since a 3-0 win at UC Davis on Nov. 18. It was Cal Poly’s 10th three-game sweep in its last 12 regular-season matches.
Still, Stevenson said his team needed a break before it began to prepare for the tournament.
“We had the one match against Davis, the quality of our play wasn’t so great,” he said. “We weren’t in a good place right after Davis. We got back to work on Saturday and ever since, we’ve been building and building.”
Playing at home could be a boost for the Mustangs, who were 7-1 in Mott Gym this season.
“It’s really nice,” Jackson said of not having to travel. “It gives us one more extra day of hard practice. We do know that we have one of the toughest brackets. That gives us all the more motivation to prove ourselves as one of the top teams in the country.”
After averaging only 612 fans in 11 home matches last year, Cal Poly is up to 1,265 per home match this season.
“I think it’s a huge advantage,” Atherstone said of playing at home. “We’re going to have lots of fans, we get to sleep in our own beds and we get to play on our home court, we don’t have to travel, we don’t have to worry about any of that, so we have a lot less on our minds.”
One thing on the Mustangs’ minds is the Wolverines (21-12, 8-12 Big 10 Conference), who were 13-0 out of conference.
“We know that it’s a lot of tall girls,” Jackson said of Michigan, which has 11 players at least six feet tall. “They run a fast offense but I know that we have one of the best blocking teams in the country.”
Michigan has lost three of its last four matches but boasts one of the top players in the Big 10 in junior outside hitter Katie Bruzdzinski, who averages 4.65 kills per game.
“We’ve got to slow her down at the very least,” Stevenson said of Bruzdzinski. “I think our ball control is going to take care of that. I think we’re going to serve very well and they’re going to have trouble receiving our serves.”
Stevenson said Cal Poly is essentially running systems traditionally used by men’s teams.
“Our offense is a copy of the Brazilian (National) men’s team, our defense is basically a copy of the USA (National) men’s team,” Stevenson said. “That’s what’s happening worldwide. We’re just ahead of the curve.”
For their part, the Mustangs are thrilled not just to be in the tournament for the first time since 2002, but also that the tournament itself will be coming to San Luis Obispo.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to show what Cal Poly’s really able to do and make the volleyball program stand out,” Atherstone said. “It’s just great to be a part of because it hasn’t happened very much and it is really exciting. I’m glad the seniors could be a part of it. Once Jon came here, we all picked it up and it was great to be a part of it.”
The Mustangs were 5-24 in 2004. Now they are two home wins away from the round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament.
“If this team is not a source of school pride, I don’t know what is,” Stevenson said. “This team is a true success story. They’ve gone from the bottom to the top.”