When Adlee Van Winden and Taylor Nelson were growing up, there was a running joke between their two families that one day they would become college teammates.
Despite living more than 85 miles apart — Van Winden in Napa and Nelson in Granite Bay — both followed in their mothers’ footsteps and developed into standout volleyball players attracting scholarship offers.
Before their prep and collegiate careers began, Van Winden and Nelson qualified for the beach volleyball state championships in Manhattan Beach four consecutive times, winning their age group in 2010.
Fast forward five years, and you’ll see the 6-foot-1 Van Winden putting down ball after ball from Nelson as teammates at Cal Poly.
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Van Winden, a freshman outside hitter, leads the Mustangs with 172 kills this season, and her 3.82 kills per set is the fourth-highest mark in the Big West Conference.
“She’s only a freshman, obviously,” said Nelson, a 6-foot sophomore setter, “but she’s playing a lot older than that.”
That’s not terribly surprising given Van Winden’s family lineage.
Her mother, Kelly, was an All-American outside hitter at Cal Poly, and her father, Jim, played for the Mustangs’ basketball team. Van Winden’s younger sister, Torrey, will play volleyball at UCLA next fall.
Kelly Van Winden coached Adlee and Torrey until they were about 14, helping build a foundation that led to Adlee’s standout prep career at Vintage High in Napa.
Van Winden, a self-described gym rat, twice was chosen as the Napa Valley Register player of the year and recorded an eye-popping 448 kills and 320 digs during her senior season.
In reuniting with Nelson, whose mother, Vera, also played volleyball for Cal Poly, Van Winden has made a smooth transition to the speed and power of the college game. She and Nelson are the only two players who rotate through all six positions during a match.
“She’s calm, competitive and she’s got the respect I think early on from her teammates,” fourth-year Cal Poly coach Sam Crosson said. “They know that she’s out there to battle and compete with them.”
The Mustangs are 8-4 overall and 0-1 against Big West Conference opponents this season, already one victory away from matching last year’s total.
After playing 10 of its first 12 matches on the road, Cal Poly returns home to play an athletic Long Beach State team at 7 p.m. Friday at Mott Athletics Center.
The Mustangs were swept in three sets during their Big West opener against No. 10-ranked Hawaii last weekend in Honolulu. Van Winden and sophomore Raeann Greisen had 12 kills apiece in the setback, marking the 11th time in her first 12 games Van Winden reached double-digit kills.
“Now that we’re moving into conference, it gets a little more hectic with school and practice and volleyball,” Van Winden said. “But it’s nothing that I didn’t expect. Coming in I knew it was going to be tough, and I’m ready.”
The Big West Conference honored Van Winden as the league’s freshman of the week three consecutive times to begin the season. The third honor came on the heels of a 20-kill, 19-dig performance during a five-set loss to Portland on Sept. 12.
Nelson has been among the best in the conference as well.
Her 10.60 assists per set lead the Big West, and she’s well on her way to becoming one of Cal Poly’s all-time best facilitators.
Following her 880-assist freshman season, Nelson enters Friday’s game with 1,336 career assists, good enough for the 10th-highest total in program history. She is 154 assists away from moving into ninth all time, a mark set by Sarah Cawrse from 2009-11.
Having been a part of the youngest team in the NCAA last fall, Nelson said the Mustangs’ team chemistry is their biggest strength this season. Being swept by three-time national champion Hawaii to begin conference play was “a little bit of a wake-up call,” and the Mustangs have responded with a good week of practice.
“We’re all here for one goal: to win the Big West,” Nelson said. “We’re all willing to do whatever it takes, so we’re in the gym every week working hard and staying after practice if we can to get extra reps.”