When Kristina Graven was in Mott Gym last year, watching a young Cal Poly volleyball team go through its growing pains, the highly touted Mustangs recruit saw how much potential was on the court.
“They looked good,” said Graven, an Archbishop Mitty High (San Jose) product who was in town for a recruiting visit last fall. “They were a really young team, but the offense was dynamic, and you could see the patterns working.”
The question at hand is whether enough of that potential has been realized to get Cal Poly back among the nation’s elite after another couple of departures have altered sixth-year coach Jon Stevenson’s master plan once again.
Graven, the most highly regarded high school recruit Stevenson has brought to San Luis Obispo according to prepvolleyball.com’s rankings, will be a freshman this season, hoping to help last year’s hyped group of freshmen get Cal Poly back into Big West Conference title contention.
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Stevenson led the Mustangs to back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007, but an underachieving season followed in 2008, and last year’s team — led mostly by middle blocker Dominique Olowolafe and a group of six freshmen — finished 9-20.
Olowolafe and five of the six freshmen are back to form the core of a team that Olowaolafe said is just as talented as the one that got all the way to an NCAA regional semifinal her freshman year.
“Each year has been so different, and they’ve all been so talented,” Olowolafe said. “I just think at the end of the day, it’s just how hard we’re willing to work and our willpower.
“Our ultimate goal is to take another Big West Conference championship, and I think it’s definitely possible. After a year like last year, we’re definitely ready to kick it into gear.”
One challenge for Cal Poly will be breaking in a new setter for the third year in a row. Stevenson has had issues with stabilizing the position since former Atascadero High standout Chelsea Hayes graduated in 2007.
Hailey Fithian inherited the job in 2008, and Anuhea Keanini, the top-ranked freshman setter in the country, took the majority of the playing time away from her last season.
Keanini averaged more than nine assists per set but is no longer at the school, and the job now falls to junior Sarah Cawrse, a former Oregon State transfer who has only seven assists as a Mustang.
The program also lost middle blocker Anicia Santos, a Frisco, Colo., native who transferred to Colorado in the offseason. Santos and Keanini join a growing list of Cal Poly players who have left the program early.
One of the reasons last season’s team was so dependent on freshmen was because Stevenson’s 2006 recruiting class, his first full class as head coach of the Mustangs, had all left the program.
Six had either transferred or quit the team in the years prior and former Paso Robles High standout Ashleigh Bertoni left the team within the first few matches last season, leaving Fithian as the lone senior.
“If I could, I would bet that the attrition rate, that sort of factor is very common in this day and age,” Stevenson said.
“Three kids left from Washington this past year, and I could go on and on. USC is a perennial power, and it’s also a perennial loser of players. I look at that and try to understand what we could have done better or was it just function of the fact that it was a young person making a decision, and it didn’t turn out to be what they expected or they just didn’t get what they wanted?”
Still, even with the losses, expectations are elevated from a season ago.
Last year started with a two-week, 10-match road trip spent entirely away from San Luis Obispo. The young team lost its first five matches, winning a total of only three sets before taking its first victory.
Returning home 2-8 was not a tragedy because of the youth, but those kind of results will not be acceptable to Stevenson on the 12-match road trip that kicks off this season with a Friday match against Arizona in a tournament hosted by Notre Dame.
“We have matches that we think we’re going to win,” he said. “We’re going in there. We expect to win those, and then we have enough top-flight matches that will allow us to climb the polls if we get those key wins.”