It’s 1985. Cal Poly volleyball players Kelly Strand and Vera Pendergast are laser-focused with sweat dripping down their faces in the heat of Mott Athletic Center. Cheers from loyal fans fill their ears and blur to background noise as they prepare to dig a speedy serve from the opposing team. Their Cal Poly team was ranked in the top 10 in the NCAA at the time.

And now, more than 30 years later, their daughters play the same positions their mothers did as Mustangs. But at the time, no one could have predicted the legacy they would start and that their children would continue.

Family history

Thirty years ago, love was in the air in the Cal Poly athletics department. Jim Van Winden, a Cal Poly basketball player, and  Cal Poly volleyball player Kelly Van Winden (maiden: Strand) met at Cal Poly and later got married. Similarly, Rich Nelson, a Cal Poly baseball player, and Vera Nelson (maiden: Pendergast), a Cal Poly volleyball player, also met at Cal Poly and later married.

Sophomore outside hitter Adlee Van Winden recalls her childhood home as the daughter of two Cal Poly alumni, with the families’ cars decorated with sentimental Cal Poly alumni and Cal Poly parent stickers.

“Everything in our houses is green and yellow,” Adlee said.

Junior setter Taylor Nelson recalls the first trip she took with her family to her parents’ alma mater with her sister, Lindsay, and brother, Darren.

“I came here when I was 10 and ever since then I was like, ‘I have to go here,’” Taylor said.

The SLO mamas

Vera and Kelly were part of one of the most successful volleyball teams Cal Poly has ever had, finishing in the top eight in the country in the 1980s. Kelly was an all-American outside hitter for the team. As team captain during her senior season, Vera was named as an honorable mention to the Big West All-Conference team.

“My time at Cal Poly was amazing,” Vera said in an email to Mustang News. “We had incredible teams all my years. We also had the best fans in the country. Our gym was packed with students and the local community. I have so many amazing memories of playing in Mott gym.”

Their friendship has only grown stronger since their college days. For the past 30 years, Vera, Kelly and four other former teammates still go on an annual “girls weekend” vacation.

“They have a group text where they still talk to each other almost every day,” Taylor said. “They call each other ‘the
SLO mamas.’”

Now, Kelly and Vera drive down to watch most of their daughters’ volleyball matches on the same court where they first became friends.

“The friendships I made at Cal Poly have been the best friends throughout my lifetime,” Vera said.

As daughters of the “SLO mamas,” Adlee and Taylor grew up together. They played beach volleyball together as teenagers in Santa Cruz or at the court in Adlee’s backyard. But the odds of Kelly and Vera having daughters that were less than a year apart and that both grew up to play NCAA volleyball as well are pretty remarkable, even to the daughters.

“So slim. It’s crazy. It’s awesome though,” Adlee said.

Both moms still stay involved in volleyball beyond watching their daughters play for Cal Poly. Vera is the head volleyball coach and assistant beach volleyball coach at Sierra College in Rocklin, California. Kelly owns a volleyball club in Napa and every one of Adlee’s maternal cousins received a full college scholarship for volleyball.

“Just being raised in that environment gives us an attitude that’s super similar to one another,” Adlee said.

Adlee and Taylor’s lifelong bond goes on to the court as well. The middle school beach volleyball tandem has continued their partnership all the way to the sand courts at Cal Poly. With a 10-year partnership comes communication skills that other NCAA pairs may not have.

“It’s such a personal sport. You’re only with one other person that you really have to understand each other’s dynamic,” Taylor said.

Continuing the legacy

Kelly and Vera were successful during their days at Cal Poly, but their daughters are power players in their own right.

Taylor was selected as one of 12 players for the U.S. Women’s Collegiate National Team Thailand Tour. Additionally, the kinesiology major ended her season sixth in the country and first in the Big West conference in assists per set and earned all-region honors from the American Volleyball Coaches’ Association.

Adlee, a child development major, was named Big West Freshman of the year and all-conference honorable mention her sophomore season, leading the Mustangs in kills with 366. With all the accolades comes some stress, so both girls look to their mothers for comfort and advice.

“I think the best part is going to your mom and saying, ‘Hey, I had this really hard day, blah blah blah,’ and … she knows, she’s been in that day,” Adlee said. “Literally, in my day, in Mott, doing the same thing as me, so it’s just really cool to have her be like, ‘Hey, you’re gonna get through it.’”

The volleyball world was still a physically taxing place 30 years ago. Kelly and Vera tell their daughters about their grueling practices and the workouts they did to rise to the top of the NCAA volleyball ladder.

“Coach Mike Wilton was a very tough but honest and caring coach,” Vera said. “He and his wife Kuulei treated us like family and still keep in touch 30 years later. They both made our time at Cal Poly truly special.”

Today, when Taylor and Adlee play in a tense indoor match or neck-to-neck beach game, they understand each other. The two friends know not just where they are right now, but where they came from.

“Competitive-wise, we’re both just extremely competitive, so being able to look at her and knowing there’s someone out there that has the same drive and meaning is super reassuring,” Adlee said.

The legacy continues for this Cal Poly-proud set of families. Taylor’s little brother, Darren, will attend Cal Poly to play baseball this fall, just as his father Rich did.

The family connections to Cal Poly don’t seem to stop. Taylor lives in the same house that her mom did when she lived here.

“Both of my cousins [also] lived here when they went here and now I’m living in it,”
Taylor said.

Someday, after Taylor and Adlee trade in their Cal Poly uniforms for alumni gear, they want their future children to become Mustangs, too.

“Three generations, that’s the goal,” Taylor said. “I don’t want to pressure them, but if it works out, that would be pretty cool.”

“Oh my god, yes. That would be amazing,” Adlee said.

A few family members have strayed away from the Cal Poly tradition. Adlee’s sister, Torrey, goes to University of California, Los Angeles and Taylor’s sister, Lindsay, graduated from University of California, Santa Barbara. But Adlee and Taylor are convinced they will have “Cal Poly Parent” stickers next to their “Cal Poly Alumni” stickers on their cars one day.

“[The plan is to] just make Cal Poly look like the greatest place ever their whole life,” Adlee said. “Essentially what our moms did.”

As Taylor and Adlee continue to climb to the top of the collegiate volleyball world, to each other, they are still those lifelong friends laughing and playing around with a volleyball in Adlee’s childhood backyard. Sometimes the two will even wear their moms’ old Cal Poly uniforms for nostalgia.

For these two families, it is a very small world. And Cal Poly will always be home.

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