The Cal Poly volleyball team entered the 2021 season without All-American senior outside hitter Maia Dvoracek due to a leg injury, so they relied on fellow senior outside hitter Jamie Stivers to fill that void. However, Stivers’ season ended midway through the year with an arm injury, forcing the team to turn to some of their younger members: freshman outside hitters Tommi Stockham and Amy Hiatt.
“When somebody is removed from a group it forces other people to step up and find the next gear,” head coach Caroline Walters said. “I think Amy and Tommi have done that.”
Along with Walters, other players have noticed the impact that these freshmen have had on the team.
“It is hard to step into that role without having a ton of experience and [Stockham and Hiatt] have done such a great job at sticking with it and trying to gain some confidence over time,” junior setter Avalon DeNecochea said.
Despite the injuries to two players, the Mustangs have continued to find a way to win. The Mustangs (13-16, 11-7 Big West) currently sit in third place in the Big West standings and have won three of the last five matches with the help of the improved success of Hiatt and Stockham.
“I think they have been putting in so much work over the last few months and it is paying off and showing towards the end of the season now,” DeNecochea said.
At the time of Stivers’ injury, she was leading the conference in points and was the top player in the Big West, according to Walters.
After the injury to Cal Poly’s top hitter, Stockham jumped her way towards the top of the conference, as she is fourth in kills per set at 3.52 and is sixth in points per set at 3.83.
“I think that Stockham has done a phenomenal job at being the sixth rotation outside, killing a lot of balls and that next player for us that comes in and changes matches,” Walters said.
Stockham’s impact was felt in their match against rival and second-place UC Santa Barbara on Nov. 6 when the Mustangs defeated the Gauchos 3-1 on the road. Stockham tallied a game-high 20 kills in the victory.
“Stockham can take over matches and you saw it against Santa Barbara,” Walters said. “She is learning that she has the ability to do that with her arm when she makes the right decisions.”
Earlier in the season, she secured a career-high 26 kills in a 3-1 loss to Cal State Northridge, which led her to be named the Big West Offensive Player and Freshman of the Week.
“I am impressed with how aggressive Stockham is getting,” Hiatt said. “At the beginning of the season, she was tipping and alternate shooting a lot, but something clicked and she started hitting some insane balls.”
Stockham, who spent her first year at Indiana University, played during the 2020 season, as the Big Ten conference allowed play during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since last season did not count for a year of eligibility, Stockham is still considered a freshman at Cal Poly.
“It was such a bonus for me being a freshman and getting thrown into the mix,” Stockham said.
On the other hand, Hiatt has now entered her third year at Cal Poly, but she redshirted her first year and the Mustangs did not have a volleyball season her second year, making this her first “official” year with the team.
Since Hiatt is in her third year with the program, she has become consistent and reliable for the Mustangs. She has recorded double-digit kills in six of the last eight matches, including a career-high 21 kills against Cal State Fullerton.
“[Hiatt] is the person sitting in here and watching the most video on our team,” Walters said. “Her innate characteristics are something we try to teach the girls but at the end of the day, they are going to choose if they want to put in that extra effort. Amy is one that consistently does.
Hiatt’s extra effort has helped her become a key piece in the Mustangs’ current success, as she is currently tallying 2.54 kills per set.
“There is always someone to look back on who did x, y and z for our team so it is a challenge for us to be better than them,” Hiatt said.
While the Mustangs have not enjoyed as dominant of a season as they have in recent years, the team is full of so much young talent, led by Stockham and Hiatt, that Walters can only be excited about the future.
“To have a crystal ball and potentially look four years into the future with the two of them as seniors, we really like where they are headed,” Walters said.