Patrick Trautfield

Before the start of the volleyball season, Cal Poly sophomore middle blocker Jaclyn Houston set a goal for the team to go undefeated in the Big West Conference.

That was kept possible Saturday night, when the 20th-ranked Mustangs swept visiting rival UC Santa Barbara by scores of 30-17, 30-22, 30-27. The 2,468 fans in Mott Gym marked the largest home volleyball crowd since 1989.

“They’re a big rival,” Houston said. “We knew it would be a big crowd.”

Ranked No. 20 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association/College Sports TV poll, Cal Poly (14-4, 6-0) at times overpowered four-time defending Big West champion UCSB (11-8, 3-3).

“We dominated in every aspect,” said Cal Poly junior setter Chelsea Hayes, who had 37 assists and five digs. “I think at the beginning (of the season) we were underestimated a lot and we took advantage of teams. Now we have the capability of shutting teams down.”

That the Mustangs did, winning their seventh straight match overall and third straight by a score of 3-0. Cal Poly 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.

“This was a huge win because we had the chance to over-train with the looming Gaucho rivalry or rest them a bit, train properly, and we did that,” Cal Poly head coach Jon Stevenson said. “We came out and played with enough fire. Our blocking was excellent.”

Indeed, Cal Poly had 15.5 blocks compared to just 4.5 for UCSB. Much of that was because of the towering presence of the 6-foot, 3-inch Houston, who in the first game alone had five kills and hit .714. She finished with six kills and hit a match-high .462.

“She’s getting better and better,” Stevenson said of Houston. “She’s got so much potential.”

Sophomore outside hitters Kylie Atherstone and Alicia Waller led the Mustangs with 13 and 10 kills, respectively, and had 11 digs apiece. Cal Poly freshman outside hitter Ashleigh Bertoni had eight kills, senior outside hitter Candace Milton added six kills and junior libero Kristin Jackson had a team-high 13 digs.

The Mustangs overcame a 4-2 deficit in the first game and a 12-8 deficit in the third game. Waller had five kills and five digs in the second game, in which Cal Poly led 17-9 before UCSB got as close as 22-20.

Although it did not come into play Saturday, Cal Poly is 5-1 this season after losing the first game.

“We have a really tough mentality,” Hayes said. “We were down 2-0 against a lot of teams and came back. We’re just really mentally tough.”

Chemistry is noticeable on the court for Cal Poly despite a roster with just two seniors. The Mustangs have wins this season over No. 10 Texas and No. 11 Hawaii.

“It starts with our passing,” Hayes said. “Our passing’s been really solid.”

Through 17 matches, Atherstone led the Big West in kills per game (4.28).

“(Atherstone) is right there with any spiker in the country,” Stevenson said. “She’s attacking the ball as well as anyone I’ve seen. She hit a few lasers (Saturday).”

Waller is right behind Atherstone in Big West leaders in kills at 4.04 per game.

The numbers signify a staggering turnaround from the point at which Cal Poly was 5-24 overall and 3-15 in conference in 2004. The Mustangs were 19-6 and third at 10-4 in conference last year, but were left out of the NCAA Tournament. The Big West sent six teams to the tourney in 2003 and 2004, but just two in 2005.

Stevenson said his goals before the season were to go undefeated at home, win the Big West and reach the round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament. All three are still possibilities.

Though he called it a “tall order,” Stevenson said running the table in the Big West would become especially possible if the Mustangs can win matches at Pacific (Oct. 19) and Cal State Northridge (Oct. 21). Cal Poly has four of its final six Big West matches at home, including crucial contests against Long Beach State (Oct. 27) and UC Irvine (Oct. 28).

“If we come back 8-0,” Stevenson said of this week’s road trip, “I think we’ll have a good chance. I’m not going to get greedy. I want them to keep getting better as a team.”

For now, Stevenson is happy with the progress his team has made, having apparently exceeded the No. 2 spot it earned in the Big West preseason coaches poll.

“All in all, I’m very happy,” he said. “To beat (UC) Santa Barbara in three anytime, anywhere is an excellent feat.”

The 2,468 fans were the most at a Cal Poly home volleyball match since 2,322 watched the Mustangs hand UCSB a 3-2 NCAA Tournament Northwest Regional loss Dec. 2, 1989.

“The crowd was fantastic,” Stevenson said. “We’ve got an exciting product.”

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