Motivated by a nine-win season and a seventh-place finish in the Big West Conference, the Cal Poly volleyball team committed to making a change this summer.
Many of the returning Mustangs spent the past few months working with head strength and conditioning coach Chris Holder and building on a bond that was formed through a trying 2014 season.
“We also got that full winter-spring offseason, which was very, very helpful,” sophomore outside hitter Raeann Greisen said. “Rather than having seven freshmen walk into the gym not knowing what they’re doing.”
That was the case last fall, when Cal Poly fielded the youngest Division I team in the country with freshmen making up 64 percent of its roster. That class accounted for 1,086 of the Mustangs’ 1,529 points, and the 6-foot-2 Greisen was statistically one of the biggest contributors.
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Greisen played her way onto the Big West all-freshman team after leading Cal Poly with 359 kills and 3.55 kills per set. The San Diego native also ranked second on the team in service aces (21), digs (226) and blocks (48).
With 11 of the 15 players listed on this year’s roster still underclassmen, the Mustangs remain one of the youngest teams in the conference. Even so, fourth-year head coach Sam Crosson said the group is much further ahead than they were at this point a year ago.
“That was one of the biggest paradigm shifts culturally for us, was to have about 80 percent of our roster here over summer,” Crosson said. “It kind of set the tone, not just for our fall camp now, but I think it’s something they’re starting to look at as a way to continually improve.”
Sophomore setter Taylor Nelson is back in the mix following a standout freshman season in which she led the Mustangs with 880 assists and 14 double-doubles for digs and assists.
Nelson was the California player of the year as a high school senior and one of four players to participate in all 101 sets last fall, joining fellow freshmen Greisen, Bailey Roach and senior libero Nicole Kessler.
One of three seniors on the roster, Kessler has been as durable as they come.
She’s participated in all 316 sets during her career and took another step forward as a junior, tallying the second-most digs in the Big West with a career-high 444.
“I think this year we’re definitely better connected as a team,” Kessler said, “whereas last year there was so many new people that it was kind of hard to mesh well.”
Cal Poly incorporated three true freshmen into the fold this month — middle blocker Jillian Desmond, libero Katherine Brouker and outside hitter Adlee Van Winden. Outside hitter Alexis Clewis is new to the team as well after redshirting at Gonzaga last season.
The Mustangs will play their first seven matches on the road, beginning Aug. 28 against San Jose State. The home opener is scheduled for Sept. 18 against San Diego State, and Cal Poly will open conference play the following week at Hawaii.
Crosson said the Mustangs will quickly find out how they match up against Big West opponents.
Hawaii was picked first in the preseason Big West coaches’ poll. Last season’s undefeated conference champion Long Beach State was chosen second, and the 49ers will visit Mott Athletics Center the first weekend of October.
How the Mustangs start conference play will be key, Crosson said, but it won’t define the entire season.
“Our girls are starting to understand that if we can do what we want to do well, we’re gonna be in the matches,” Crosson said. “Then it’s going to come down to execution and who can grind their style and impose their will more than the other team.”