The Mustangs have 14 returners to the squad but no seniors in terms of athletic eligibility. Credit: Mia-Isobel Craig

Despite Cal Poly volleyball having 14 returning players, the Mustangs have no seniors on the 2023 roster.

It’s abnormal for a team of the Mustangs’ caliber to have no seniors in terms of athletic eligibility, but there are still many experienced players returning from last season.

Redshirt junior outside hitter Tommi Stockham is one of those high-level veterans. She earned her spot on the All-Big West team for the second year in a row after averaging 3.79 kills per set, which was second-most in the conference.

Sophomore setter Emme Bullis returns after her strong freshman year where she was named a member of the All-Big West Freshmen team and an All-Big West Honorable Mention.

The Wisconsin native started 29 of the team’s 30 matches at setter as a freshman and earned the third-most assists per set in the Big West with 10.05. 

Redshirt sophomore outside hitter Lizzy Markovska made the All-Big West Freshman team along with Bullis. Markovska served 26 aces last season. 

There are five freshmen joining the team as well, with one transfer — junior libero Helena Perez, who formerly played for Colorado State.

The Mustangs lost three crucial seniors including Maia Dvoracek, Meredith Phillips and Avalon DeNocochea. Credit: Mia-Isobel Craig.

According to head coach Caroline Walters, many of the younger players on the team will see the court this season.

“This is the most energetically driven freshman class I’ve ever had,” Walters said. “We give them a piece of feedback and information and they go put it into action really quickly.”

How the team will deal with the loss of key seniors

The Mustangs have multiple starters returning, but the team will still have to deal with the loss of three decorated seniors, including opposite hitter Maia Dvoracek, middle blocker Meredith Phillips and setter Avalon DeNecoche.

Dvoracek, a 2020 selection for the U.S. Women’s Collegiate National Team, dominated on offense leading the Big West with 70 aces and placing fourth in kills with 406.

Phillips was a key middle player who averaged 1.13 blocks per set and a .310 hitting percentage. She also made it onto the First Team All-Big West her sophomore year.

DeNecoche in her sophomore year earned First Team All-Big West honors and was second in Big West in assists her junior year with 10.31 per set.

Not only did the three players provide value on the court, but their leadership abilities will also need to be replaced.

According to Walters, the leadership could come by committee. She points out that Stockham’s physical feats and effort in practice and matches put her as the best leader by example.

On the other hand, Bullis excels in being a vocal leader among the group from the setter spot. Redshirt junior middle blocker Kate Slack is a blend of both styles of leadership.

With no seniors on the team this year, Stockham sees this as a “cool opportunity” to build their skills and chemistry over multiple years with the team. 

Tommi Stockham (pictured above) earned First Team All-Big West honors and tied for second in the conference in kills per set (3.79) Credit: Kayla Stuart

“I’ve been wanting that leadership role,” Stockham said. “I’m glad that I can have a positive influence on the team and I want people to be able to come up to me and ask me questions.”

A new assistant coach joins the staff

The team also brings in new assistant coach Addie Picha, who was most recently an assistant and helped with recruiting efforts at Gardner-Webb University in South Carolina. Walters regards her as a “perfect fit” for the team. 

Picha is a former middle blocker and played at the University of San Diego before moving onto the coaching ranks. Her experience in the middle blocker position has been “integral over the past few months,” Walters said.

Stockham also sees Picha as a perfect addition.

“It feels like she’s been here for years and she gets along with everybody,” she said. 

New Big West postseason format

In prior seasons, volleyball didn’t have a postseason tournament similar to other sports in the Big West.

However, this season the conference is implementing a tournament for the top six teams in the conference. The winner of the tournament will guarantee their spot in the NCAA tournament.

Long Beach State will host the tournament that takes place from Nov. 22-25.

Conference play will be reduced from 20 to 18 games to allow room for the tournament. As a result, the Mustangs will play CSU Bakersfield and CSUN only once each.

“I think if you’re in first place, you should be able to continue and win the tournament, but I also think it gives other teams a chance to have another shot to maybe win or place higher in the Big West,” Stockham said. “It’s just good that the Big West is getting to do what almost every other conference does.”

Women’s volleyball in the Big West will institute a postseason for the conference where the top six teams will compete for a bid into the NCAA Tournament.

Walters has to keep in mind injuries and substitutions more carefully within the tournament, which is something new she has to adjust to for this postseason.

Although there “will be a learning curve” navigating the new postseason, Walters has her eyes set on winning the tournament.

“Volleyball is never perfect,” Walters said. “We want to keep getting better over the weeks and play our best volleyball at the end of November.”

The Mustangs began their season at the Sacramento State Invitational and played three games from Aug. 25 to Aug. 27.