The Cal Poly women’s volleyball team‘s (18-7, 8-4 Big West) quest for a Big West Conference championship became more difficult over the weekend, but the Mustangs are still in the title hunt as they head to Santa Barbara (14-11, 8-4) to play UCSB on Saturday night.
After a four-set win at Long Beach State last Friday, the team was within striking distance of the top spot in the conference. The next night, Cal Poly won the first set in its match against Big West-leader Cal State Fullerton, getting the team off to a fast start. However, the Titans responded by winning the next three games and, consequently, the match.
“Nothing was really connecting,” said Kristina Graven, a freshman middle blocker who leads the team in kills. “Serve, receive wasn’t there. Connections between the hitters and setters weren’t there. Everything was off.”
Cal Poly only plays one game this weekend, but head coach Jon Stevenson said this one is a “must win,” as Cal Poly looks to avenge a loss to UCSB from earlier this season. In that match, the Mustangs rallied from 0-2, forcing the match to a deciding fifth set. However, the Gauchos pulled through in the final set, winning 15-10.
“It was a very tough loss to lose to Santa Barbara, especially at home in front of a big crowd,” libero Alison Mort said. “We are definitely motivated to prove to our school and other teams that we are the better team in the rivalry.”
This time around the Mustangs will look to turn the tables on UCSB.
“I think we need to come out to a fast start and win the first set, then just play our game,” Graven said.
Staying on their game will certainly involve shutting down Dana Vargas, the main UCSB setter.
“She’s the best setter in the conference,” said Stevenson, who also mentioned that scouting reports in the past have simply said, “Stop Vargas.”
By manipulating drills to put more emphasis on locating the direction of a set, Stevenson said he expects to have his team prepared by Saturday.
But one thing Stevenson cannot prepare for is the atmosphere in Isla Vista. Graven, who will travel into the Thunderdome for the first time, said the team will have to focus on filtering out distractions.
Mort has beaten the Gauchos on their home court before and said she relishes the opportunity to do it one more time.
“There is nothing better than the feeling of beating a team when they are playing at home and have all of their fans there to watch and heckle,” she said.
To counter the blue wave of Gaucho fans, Stevenson said he expects to see a fair amount of green in the stands as well.
“I hope a lot of people from Cal Poly can make it down the coast,” Stevenson said. “If we could have a nice showing, it would mean a lot.”
Mort said playing at UCSB has a different feel than other games, but she expects her team to handle the pressure.
Another dimension to the game is the fact Stevenson was an athlete at UCSB when Kathy Gregory, his counterpart this weekend, was a coach.
“It will be a cat and mouse game between me and coach Gregory,” he said. “It’s always fun to go into a battle of wits.”
Overall, the team is eager to face UCSB again.
“I’m really excited to play them,” Graven said. “I think we have a really good chance to win. It will be exciting. It will be a fun match.”
A win against UCSB, may be the toughest opponent left on Cal Poly’s schedule, would keep the Mustangs in the running for a Big West title and increase their chances for a bid in the NCAA Tournament. Stevenson said he is cautiously optimistic about both possibilities.
“If we can win the next four (matches), we can get into (the tournament) as an at-large, but it still gives us a chance to win the conference if other teams stumble,” Stevenson said.
Only two Mustangs on the team, Mort and middle hitter Dominique Olowolafe, have had the opportunity to play in the tournament — but that was three years ago.
“Making the NCAA tournament my senior year means a lot to me,” Mort said. “I came into this school and made it to the Sweet Sixteen my freshman year and to come full circle and do it again as a senior captain is my ultimate goal. I love all the girls on my team and it would mean a lot to me to succeed.”