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The Cal Poly volleyball team (9-16, 4-11 Big West Conference) dropped the first match of its final two-game homestand Friday evening at Mott Athletics Center, losing to Hawaii 3-1.
The Rainbow Warriors (19-6, 11-3) came into the match in second place and were heavily favored on paper.
Despite being the underdogs, the seventh-place Mustangs rushed out to a 6-4 lead. They were able to stay competitive by playing with an intensity and fearlessness that has been missing for a majority of the season.
Led by sophomore middle blocker Taylor Gruenewald’s five kills and one block in the first set, the Mustangs took a 20-16 advantage heading into the final stages of the set.
The Rainbow Warriors would come back to make it 22-20, but a kill by junior outside hitter Hannah Schleis gave the Mustangs a commanding 24-20 lead.
Freshman outside hitter Raeann Greisen closed out the set with an emphatic kill that inspired the usually subdued head coach Sam Crosson to display some emotion.
“It was one of the best sets we’ve had all year and I was excited,” Crosson said. “Our defensive effort was the key to our success, and our first set win against a top team just shows how much improvement we’ve made this season.”
The Mustangs held the Rainbow Warriors to a .216 hitting percentage and had two crucial blocks that led to points.
In the second set, the Mustangs continued the momentum and sustained their high defensive intensity. As a result, Cal Poly was able to fend off the Rainbow Warriors’ offensive attack for the initial part of the second set and took a 14-12 advantage.
The Mustangs tried their best to hold onto control through kills by freshman middle blocker Cailha Petiprin, but could only stop the powerful Hawaii attack for so long. A 7-1 run by the Rainbow Warriors put the Mustangs in a 19-13 deficit.
Led by Gruenewald, who had a team-high 16 kills in the match, the Mustangs rallied and came back to only trail 22-21. However, Cal Poly could not get over the hump and dropped the set 25-22.
In the pivotal third set, the Mustangs failed to start the set with the same intensity and focus they had in the previous two sets. As a result, the Rainbow Warriors raced out to a 10-1 lead.
The Mustangs’ slow start was attributed to a struggling offensive attack. Cal Poly’s offense could not get on track against the Rainbow Warriors’ awoken defense.
Hawaii’s sizable front wall dominated the Mustangs’ hitters and had 11.5 of its 19.5 total blocks in the third set. The Rainbow Warriors also held the Mustangs to a -.098 hitting percentage.
“It was a very frustrating night,” Greisen said. “Hawaii has one of the longest and best front lines. We tried to make adjustments by swinging higher, but unfortunately, it never materialized.”
With a dominant defense controlling all the action, the Rainbow Warriors cruised to an easy 25-12 victory in the third set.
The Mustangs had to respond in the fourth set trailing two games to one. Unfortunately for the Mustangs, the Rainbow Warriors would once again use their defensive prowess to stop the Mustang attack. Hawaii raced out to a 9-3 lead, and it seemed as though it would be another blowout set for the Rainbow Warriors.
The Mustangs responded behind the defensive play of junior libero Nicole Kessler. She was all over the place, diving for loose balls and keeping the play alive for the Mustangs. Kessler would finish the match with a match-leading 25 digs.
However, the Mustangs could not keep pace with the Rainbow Warriors. Hawaii never relinquished the lead and won the set and the match 25-16.
With the loss to Hawaii, Cal Poly’s losing streak extends to three.
“Our inconsistencies continue to plague us,” Crosson said. “We’ve had our two best sets and our two worst sets of the year in the same match. We’re still learning how to put an entire match together.”
Cal Poly closes the 2014 season at home versus Blue-Green rival UC Santa Barbara on Nov. 26.