The Cal Poly volleyball team had the perfect chance to brush away the taste of a nonconference slate that had the Mustangs stumbling into Big West Conference play five matches under .500.
Predicted conference front-runner UC Irvine, the 21st-ranked team in the country, was in town. Knocking off the Anteaters in the conference opener Friday night would have catapulted Cal Poly back into the mix, even if the Mustangs had gone winless to start the season.
Despite three competitive sets, however, Cal Poly (4-10, 0-1 Big West) held on to its identity as a strikingly young team still searching for some consistency after a 3-0 (25-22, 25-19, 26-24) loss to UC Irvine (11-2, 1-0 Big West) in front of 1,036 at Mott Gym.
“Our only reaction has to be we’re going to get better,” said Mustangs head coach Jon Stevenson, who’s taken the team to the NCAA Tournament in two of the past three seasons. “We have to come to play better (to)night than we did (Friday). We had this opportunity, and we didn’t execute when we needed to execute.”
Cal Poly nearly stole the third set after holding a 20-19 lead, and the Mustangs felt good about their play in the first set, one where they got within 23-22.
They held UC Irvine’s best player, outside hitter Kari Pestolesi, to 13 kills and just a .105 hitting percentage, leading Stevenson to say Cal Poly had the best team in the Big West “figured out.”
But the end result is no different than if the Anteaters had dominated play. They still hold a one-game conference lead, and facing UC Riverside tonight, Cal Poly has ground to make up if it expects to stay in the Big West title race.
“I think we still will be,” said middle blocker Dominique Olowolafe, who had a team-best nine kills and hit .400. “I don’t think any bubble’s been popped. If anything, it’s a touch of reality that we all have to deal with, and going forward, we now know what needs to get done.“It’s a learning process, and it’s going to be uncomfortable to go through times like this, but great teams go through things like this.”
On Friday, Olowolafe was the lone junior and the oldest player in a starting lineup that included four freshmen.
Stevenson has all six of his freshmen playing regularly and has yet to find a rigidly defined starting lineup. Freshman Megan McConnell was second with eight kills, and has emerged as the Mustangs’ kills leader with fellow freshmen Holly Franks and Molly Pon close behind.
“We don’t focus on the fact that there’s a lot of freshmen,” McConnell said. “Maybe it was an excuse our first match, but it’s not an excuse anymore.”
At the setter position, Stevenson said a regular simply hasn’t emerged.
The starter Friday was freshman Anuhea Keanini, who had 17 assists through the first two sets. Fifth-year senior Hailey Fithian came on in the final set and dished out 11 assists.
Stevenson said that as he’s tried to figure out a regular pattern of use for the two setters, their play has fluctuated and they bring different strengths and weaknesses to the game.
Keanini has played in 42 sets this season and averaged 7.15 assists per set entering Friday’s match. Fithian has played in 33 and was averaging 7.34.
“There’s been really no pattern,” Stevenson said. “I think at some point, if a pattern becomes very obvious and necessary that we have to run things this way, it will make things easier for us, clearly.”
Citrus 3, Cuesta 2
Cuesta (2-6) dropped a 19-25, 25-22, 25-22, 23-25, 15-9 decision to Citrus in San Luis Obispo. No other information was available.
Mustangs release full schedule
The Cal Poly men’s basketball team will be starting its season with five straight road games and will play in Mott Gym only three times before the start of Big West Conference play in January.
It means there won’t be many opportunities to catch new coach Joe Callero’s new-look Mustangs prior to the Big West home opener against Pacific on Jan. 7.
Between Nov. 13 and Nov. 28, Cal Poly will play at San Francisco, Stanford, Portland State, Saint Mary’s and Arkansas-Little Rock. The home opener is Dec. 3 against Callero’s former team, Seattle.
The Mustangs also host Pepperdine and Montana State in nonconference play and travel to the Midwest for back-to-back games at South Dakota State and Wisconsin on Dec. 15-16.
Cal Poly 1, No. 7 Cal 0 OT
Junior forward Whitney Sisler scored the game’s only goal to lift the Mustangs (5-4) to an overtime win against the seventh-ranked Golden Bears in Berkeley.
Senior Goalkeeper Coral Hoover withstood a barrage of 25 shots from Cal (6-2), making nine saves to preserve the shutout.
Freshman forward Bianca Burright had the other two shots on goal for Cal Poly. The Mustangs have won three consecutive matches on the road, all scores of 1-0.
Sacramento City College 1, Cuesta 0
Karissa Robertson scored the only goal with eight minutes remaining to beat the Cougars in San Luis Obispo.
Mari Monticella made six saves for the Cougars (1-5-1) who dropped another close match.
Portland 2, Cal Poly 0
The Mustangs allowed goals in the 70th and 73rd minute before falling to Portland (4-1-1) at the Husky Fever Classic in Seattle.
Cal Poly goalkeeper Brett Finkelstein made nine saves for the Mustangs (2-5), who managed just one shot on goal in the match.
Portland outshot the Mustangs 20-9 and 11-1 in shots on goal.
Women’s Water PoloCuesta 11, San Joaquin Delta 8; Merced 16, Cuesta 4
At the Cabrillo College Tournament, Morgan Thompson led Cuesta (3-7) against San Joaquin Delta with five goals. Erin Gray and Kat Shellooe both added two goals for the Cougars.
Gray scored twice in the loss to Merced.