The freshmen of the Cal Poly women’s volleyball team have so far exceeded expectations. Despite being thrust into the challenge of playing for the 2017 Big West Conference champions, the two freshman starters, Avalon DeNecochea and Meredith Phillips, have only added to the Mustangs’ success.
DeNecochea is second in the Big West in assists per set with 10.35 and is second in attack percentage for the Mustangs with .348. She has started in every game this season.
Phillips was named Coca-Cola Cal Poly Student-Athlete of the Week and is third on the team in kills per set this season with a 1.82 average.
“They had huge roles to fill,” senior outside hitter Adlee Van Winden said. “They stepped up and have obviously executed those tremendously beyond anybody’s expectations.”
Last year, the Mustangs earned their best record in program history at 27-3 and are on track to perform even better with only one loss this season so far. The team is still ranked No. 12 in the nation after continuing an 18-game winning streak after weekend wins against CSUN and Long Beach State.
The Mustangs’ success is all the more possible due to the talent of Phillips and DeNecochea, who were both prominent players at their respective high schools.
Setter DeNecochea was a four-year varsity starter for University City High School in San Diego, where she was the team’s MVP for three consecutive years. Since joining the Mustangs, DeNecochea has noticed an increase in her preparation for each match.
“So much mental work goes into everything, we have scouting reports all the time,” DeNecochea said.
Middle blocker Phillips, meanwhile, was a four-year varsity starter for Memorial High School in Houston, Texas, where she broke the program record for block-per-season with a total of 196 blocks.
“The speed of volleyball just [goes] so much faster,” Phillips said of the transition from high school to college. The 2018 AT&T Sportnet Player of the Year has started 63 sets for the Mustangs and already has a record of 15 digs, eight solo blocks and 112 kills.
In addition to a faster-paced game, the freshmen have also felt the increased attention in collegiate play. Even with only eight games left in the regular season, Phillips said she still feels nervous every time she hears her name announced as a starter in Mott Athletics Center.
“When I’m standing on the end-line and they call my name … it’s so surreal. I just take it in every time and I’m like, ‘Wow, all these people are here to watch me play volleyball,’” Phillips said.
Phillips’ emotions ran high during her first match in Mott Athletics Center against UCLA, but she ended up with 18 kills in two matches against the Bruins.
“It was a big chance to like do something, make a name for ourselves, and I knew that we needed everybody to step up including me,” Phillips said.
Van Winden credited the strength of the Mustangs to the team’s culture and close-knit relationships both on and off the court. The personal connections and relationships outside of Mott Athletics Center allow the team to work cohesively on the court.
“We push each other to grow, we all have these open, communicative relationships,” Van Winden said.
DeNecochea is filling a big role, replacing now-graduated setter Taylor Nelson. Van Winden has noticed similarities in the two starting setters.
“The way they handle themselves on the court, it’s like a consistent, composed person who you can always look to just be that silent leader who you look at in times of worry,” Van Winden said. “And [DeNecochea’s] just good, she’s never going to get too rattled.”
As one of two seniors on the roster this season, Van Winden has been a source of advice for the new Mustangs.
“Trust your skills, there’s pressure, there’s a crowd, there’s tons of information that can be overloading,” Van Winden said.
Fans can expect the freshmen and the rest of the team to continue to shine at every game. Cal Poly will look to continue their rampage through the Big West Conference when the team travels to play Hawai’i on Friday, Oct. 26 at 10 p.m. before returning home to host UC Irvine on Tuesday, Oct 30 at 7 p.m.
“I really want to keep our level of intensity,” DeNecochea said. “We’re having a really good season and I want to keep having that every year I’m here.”