Just because the Cal Poly volleyball team ended UC Santa Barbara’s 16-match home winning streak earlier this season, that does not mean the Mustangs are taking the rematch Saturday lightly.
In fact, when 20th-ranked Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara clash in a storied Big West Conference rivalry match at 7 p.m. Saturday in Mott Gym, the proceedings may be even more intense.
“By no means is this anything but a total street fight,” Cal Poly head coach Jon Stevenson said. “It’s a brawl.”
Cal Poly (13-4, 5-0) is off to its best Big West start ever and best conference start overall since 1985, when the Mustangs were members of the now-defunct Pacific Coast Athletic Association.
“We went into the season knowing we were going to be a good team and had expectations to win,” said Cal Poly sophomore outside hitter Kylie Atherstone, who leads the team in both kills (304) and service aces (27). “Our goal for this season was to win the Big West, play in the NCAA Tournament and stay perfect at home.”
The Mustangs handed the Gauchos (11-7, 3-2) a 3-1 loss Sept. 23 at the Thunderdome. It was a huge step for a program that has risen from the ashes of a 5-24 season in 2004 to its first national ranking of any kind since 1999 this season.
Despite that, Stevenson reminds his team that nothing is a given Saturday, even in Mott Gym where Cal Poly is a combined 13-1 the past two years.
“I don’t think so,” Stevenson said when asked if his team has the upper hand over UCSB. “The upper hand means to me that we have some sort of inherent advantage.”
“Santa Barbara is one of those teams that’s going to come really fired up,” she said. “We know they’re a really good team – they just beat Pepperdine.”
Both teams come in riding winning streaks. Winners of six straight, Cal Poly has not lost since a 3-2 defeat Sept. 15 at Hawaii. UCSB has won four straight. The Gauchos are led by outside hitter Jamie Garbisch (3.92 kills per game) and middle blocker Olivia Waldowski (3.33 kills per game), a pair of seniors.
“This match is really huge,” Stevenson said. “It’s a challenge and that’s what it’s all about.”
In addition to Atherstone, another sophomore outside hitter is leading the way for the Mustangs – Alicia Waller.
Waller is second on the team in both kills (287) and digs (195) and third in aces (19).
In terms of kills, sophomore middle blocker Jaclyn Houston is third (136), freshman outside hitter Ashleigh Bertoni is fourth (132) and senior outside hitter Candace Milton is fifth (109). Junior setter Chelsea Hayes’ 886 assists lead the Big West.
Of playing on a team with just two seniors, Atherstone said the players each look to someone different for leadership.
“It’s different for each person,” she said. “We all work as such a team together.”
The Mustangs are ranked No. 20 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association/College Sports TV poll, but may be even higher in terms of eventual NCAA Tournament seeding. Cal Poly is No. 12 in RichKern.com’s Pablo Ratings, a widely acknowledged simulation of the NCAA’s secret Ratings Percentage Index formula used to determine playoff teams.
“The coaches’ poll is a totally subjective discussion and conference call of coaches who are part of this (AVCA) committee,” Stevenson said. “Whereas the Pablo Ratings take into account the strength of schedule and opponents’ strength of schedule.”
Stevenson, though, said being ranked No. 20 in the more well-known AVCA/CSTV poll has helped from a recruiting standpoint.
“We have some of the top players in the country wanting to come to Cal Poly,” he said. “It’s not only a great school but a great school with a great volleyball program.”