Tommi Stockham (9) is a key returner for the Mustangs and made First Team All-Big West in 2022. Credit: Kayla Stuart

Cal Poly Volleyball wrapped up non-conference play on Saturday, Sept. 16 at the Mustang Invitational hosted in Mott Athletic Center. 

The Mustangs (6-6) fell to Pepperdine in three straight sets on the final day of play. The team got off to a slow start in the first set and couldn’t find their rhythm to mount a comeback as they did on the previous day against St. Mary’s where the Mustangs reverse swept the Gaels.

The team went 1-2 over the three-day period falling to Washington in five sets and Pepperdine and defeating St. Mary’s. 

“After playing back-to-back five-set matches with the fast turnaround, it was a little bit of a slower start for us,” head coach Caroline Walters said. “That’s not an excuse and we need to be better at the start of games…but ultimately we lost the serve-pass game and (Pepperdine) got us out of system quite a bit.”

Overall, the Mustangs are off to a better start this season compared to their 0-7 start in 2022. 

“I think we actually opponent by opponent played a tougher preseason this year,” Walters said. “You’re looking at some of the names and I know people probably don’t even know where Stephen F. Austin is, or James Madison University, but these are teams that are winning 20 to 24 matches in a season and are great for RPI.”

Although the team got off to a slow start last season, the Mustangs ended up finishing the year 17-13 and won 14 games in Big West play. Returners from the 2022 team include redshirt junior outside hitter Tommi Stockham and redshirt sophomore Lizzy Markovska.

Stockham, a member of the 2022 First Team All-Big West, has 133 kills through 12 games while Markovska has 145 kills. 

Defensively, redshirt junior Jolei Akima led the Mustangs with 227 digs. Redshirt junior middle Kate Slack and redshirt junior outside hitter Amy Hiatt have 50 blocks each for the Mustangs while Markovska added 27.

Cal Poly heads into conference play tied with Long Beach State for the most wins in non-conference play. The Mustangs finished fourth on the coach’s preseason poll behind Hawaii, UC Santa Barbara and Long Beach State. 

In three of their last four games, the Mustangs have gone the full five sets and have won two of the three matches. Walters believes the team’s taking tough teams like the University of Washington, Pepperdine and VCU to five sets “indicates (the team) is closer than they realize” to being one of the best in the Big West.

“We don’t have any seniors on the team,” Walters said. “You’ve got a good chunk of underclassmen sprinkled with some juniors in there. It indicates that there needs to be a sense of leadership that needs to be found between those young kids or juniors.”

Outside hitter Emme Fredrick, setter Samantha Callahan and libero Ella Scott are the three freshmen who have seen significant time in the preseason. 

The program has typically treated non-conference as a period to build up their RPI in order to be in contention to receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament and also as a time to play against strong competition in preparation for the Big West.

“You’d like to be a little bit more competitive against Pepperdine that being our final match of of non-conference but I think we accomplished what we want to in preseason,” Walters said. “You get to test a lot of different lineups and you get to see you know how people respond, and I feel confident with our core group knowing that I can put them in a lot of different situations.”

The Mustangs begin Big West play with an away game on Friday, Sept. 22 at Long Beach State at 7 p.m.