Patrick Trautfield

It was exactly what the Cal Poly volleyball team hoped for.

Despite entering the weekend ranked behind seven West Region teams in the American Volleyball Coaches Association/College Sports TV poll, the Mustangs learned Sunday they will host NCAA Tournament action for the first time since 1989.

Cal Poly, which watched the announcement live on ESPNews, will host Michigan in the first round at 8 p.m. Friday. The winner of that match in Mott Gym will play either Cal or LSU on Saturday for the right to advance to the single-elimination tournament’s round of 16 in Austin, Texas, on Dec. 8.

“I’m ecstatic about the whole thing,” said Cal Poly head coach Jon Stevenson, who is 41-11 in two years at the helm. “I don’t know if it could have happened better for us, how we could draw it up – to play against Michigan in our regional.”

As the outright Big West Conference champion, Cal Poly (22-5, 13-1) has known since Nov. 10 it would be in the 64-team tournament.

Still, there was a sense of vindication for a team that was excluded altogether from the tournament last year despite a 19-6 overall record and third-place finish in the Big West at 10-4. The Big West sent six teams to the tournament in 2003 and 2004, but only two in 2005.

“There was a big howl, everyone was jumping around,” Stevenson said of his players’ reaction to the announcement. “The idea of playing at home and seeing their name on the bracket was amazing. We watched at one of our (assistant) coach’s houses. There were about 20 people watching.”

Cal Poly junior setter Chelsea Hayes said she was somewhat surprised the Mustangs garnered a home match because of how the school’s teams in recent years have been controversially left out of postseason play – football in 2004, volleyball in 2005, baseball in 2005 and softball in both 2005 and 2006.

“The past few years, Cal Poly has a reputation of getting left out of the tournament,” Hayes said. “I thought we’d get a bad draw.”

When the announcement was made, Hayes said, players burst into excitement.

“I can’t believe that we have this opportunity here,” Hayes said. “Everything seems to be set up really well to do well in the tournament.”

The Mustangs, who were tied with LSU for 15th in the AVCA/CSTV poll, snagged the 15th seed in the bracket. Three of the four teams who will play in San Luis Obispo this weekend were ranked in the top 15.

Finishing tied for seventh in the Big 10 Conference, unranked Michigan (21-12, 8-12) enters the tournament having lost three of its last four matches.

“They’re a prototypical Big 10 team,” Stevenson said of the Wolverines. “They’ve got some good size. I don’t know that they’ll have the speed that we have.”

At 7 p.m. Friday, 14th-ranked Cal (20-9) and 15th-ranked LSU (26-5) will square off in Mott Gym.

While head coach at St. Mary’s in 2003, Stevenson’s Gaels fell 3-0 to Cal in the first round of the tournament at Berkeley.

“If we both move on, we have what I think is a good situation because I’ve watched Cal play this year twice,” Stevenson said.

The Mustangs will be led by sophomore outside hitter Kylie Atherstone, who took Big West Co-Player of the Year honors last Tuesday. She averages 4.5 kills per game.

Also receiving first-team All-Big West honors for Cal Poly were Hayes (12.7 assists per game), sophomore middle blocker Jaclyn Houston (1.48 blocks per game), junior libero Kristin Jackson (4.98 digs per game) and senior outside hitter Candace Milton (1.69 kills per game).

Like Stevenson, Hayes said the Mustangs will try to use their speed and quickness to their advantage.

“We run a pretty quick offense and it’s hard for a lot of teams to keep up when we’re shooting the ball to the pins,” Hayes said. “It gives us an advantage.”

Stevenson said not having to travel to a regional site is a considerable boost.

“It’s a huge benefit,” he said. “Just to not get on a bus or plane, there’s that much more time to work.”

Hayes agreed.

“That’s a huge deal, just the fact we get more practice time, we’re on our home court, we’ll have a lot more people behind us,” Hayes said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to pack Mott Gym.”

Cal Poly will have five practices this week, Stevenson said.

A potential reason the Mustangs wound up hosting a regional is because of their strength of schedule.

Cal Poly’s nonconference opponents included No. 1 Nebraska, No. 8 Texas, No. 10 Minnesota, No. 12 Hawaii and No. 24 Pepperdine.

As a result, the Mustangs were ranked No. 13 in RichKern.com’s Nov. 20 Pablo Rankings, which simulate the NCAA’s secret Ratings Percentage Index formula used to determine teams bound for the postseason.

After averaging 612 fans in 11 home matches last year, Cal Poly has averaged 1,265 fans in eight home matches this season.

“I anticipate sellout crowds at Mott Gym for these two nights,” Stevenson said. “We have such a nice homecourt advantage.”

Three Big West teams are in the tournament: Cal Poly, Long Beach State (25-5) – which will host a regional – and UC Santa Barbara (19-11).

“That’s exactly what I would have anticipated,” Stevenson said. “Not surprised at all. I thought Santa Barbara would get in. Long Beach, we always knew they would get in.”

Long Beach State won national titles in 1989, 1993 and 1998.

The last time the Mustangs hosted a regional was in 1989, when they edged rival UC Santa Barbara 3-2 in the first round before falling 3-2 to Hawaii in a Northwest Regional semifinal in Stockton.

Cal Poly will be playing in the tournament for the first time since 2002, when it was swept out of the first round by Pepperdine.

It has already been a historic season for the Mustangs:

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.

Now Cal Poly has a chance to add to its best season in more than two decades.

“It’s exciting times,” Stevenson said.

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