Ryan Chartrand

By all indications, the Cal Poly volleyball program is experiencing its best season since 1985.

That’s when the Mustangs were 31-8 overall and 15-2 in the now-defunct Pacific Coast Athletic Association on their way to an NCAA Tournament Northwest Regional appearance.

But for 20th-ranked Cal Poly (14-4, 6-0 Big West), the best times may still be yet to come.

The reason?

Cal Poly’s top three leaders in kills are sophomores. The fourth? A freshman. All in all, 11 of the 16 players on the roster are either freshmen or sophomores.

“I think we have a lot of potential for next year, but right now we just want to focus,” Cal Poly junior setter Chelsea Hayes said after the Mustangs swept UC Santa Barbara in three games Saturday. “We’ll worry about next year next year.”

Focus will be key for Cal Poly as it heads to Pacific and Cal State Northridge for a pair of matches this week.

The Mustangs set a goal before the season of reaching the round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament, a prospect that is only strengthened by the team’s best conference start in 21 years.

Potential recruits have not been turned away by the youthful roster, Cal Poly second-year head coach Jon Stevenson said. In fact, he said, the No. 20 ranking in the American Volleyball Coaches Association/College Sports TV poll has only enhanced the program in the eyes of potential recruits.

“We’ve got these recruits looking at us that just wouldn’t have before,” Stevenson said. “Some of the recruits we’re talking to are top 25. We’ll be a ranked recruiting class next year, almost certainly.”

All this on top of the possibility that the best incoming player to the program next year is already with the team.

After starting 11 of 23 matches for Florida State in 2005, Gabrielle Rivera transferred to Cal Poly last offseason and is redshirting this year. She has been a member of the Puerto Rican Junior National team since 2001.

Alongside middle blocker Jaclyn Houston, Rivera will be the Mustangs’ second towering 6-foot, 3-inch presence in the lineup.

For a program that has reached the NCAA Tournament just three times since 1989, in recent years it might have been easy to look back too often. The Mustangs, after all, went to the tournament in consecutive years from 1981-89.

But while the 2006 team is mindful of such history, it is decidedly not living in the past.

“We can never go back,” Stevenson said. “We don’t want to go back. We want to create something new.”

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