While many eyes will be turned toward Fresno this weekend, the Cal Poly volleyball team is back for a rare homestand, and it couldn’t be more crucial for the Mustangs.
The Cal Poly football team has a marquee road game with Fresno State, but the volleyball team — which has played just one of its 15 matches in Mott Gym this season — will be looking for support in San Luis Obispo, where the Mustangs host a pair of strong Big West Conference opponents.
Sporting a 10-match win streak, a 12-3 overall record and receiving votes in the national coaches’ poll, Cal Poly (2-0 Big West) appears to be back in the conference title hunt and competing for a postseason berth after two subpar seasons ended a run of back-to-back championship years.
The Mustangs won’t officially be “back” until they get through a Friday match with Cal State Fullerton (11-4, 0-1 Big West) and a Saturday match with No. 23 Long Beach State (11-3, 1-0 Big West), the defending conference champion, unscathed.
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Both matches are scheduled for 7 p.m. in Mott Gym.
The Titans came away with two victories over the Mustangs last season, and the 49ers have looked strong again this season, losing only to No. 2 Texas in five sets, No. 25 San Diego in four and to Middle Tennessee State, which is led by former San Luis Obispo High standout and former Cal Poly signee Ashley Adams.
“We’re focused on winning a Big West championship,” Mustangs freshman outside hitter Kristina Graven said. “That’s the most immediate goal. We need to win this weekend and win out the rest of conference.”
Cal Poly has won a lot lately, even with injuries keeping key returners out for big chunks of the year.
Sophomore Megan McConnell, the Mustangs’ kills leader last year, has been out all season with a shoulder injury, and senior middle blocker Dominique Olowolafe has missed most of the past month and all of the current win streak with a broken pinkie finger.
Olowolafe started the season on fire, averaging 2.82 kills per set and hitting a team-high 39 percent, before going down just five matches into the season. Her cast came off this week, and she will be a game-time decision after practicing Wednesday for the first time since the injury occurred.
The senior might be held out by head coach Jon Stevenson, partly for precaution and partly because her replacement, freshman Marianne Gera has impressed him while Olowo-lafe has been out.
The Mustangs might not be better without Olowolafe, but the chemistry is different.
“It means that we’re good enough without her to beat a lot of teams and play solid volleyball,” Stevenson said, “that Marianne Gera is a very good player and really efficient. What she’s done is made herself a home here.
“Sometimes teams just get comfortable with certain elements, and the chemistry seems to work better in certain ways.”
Gera, Graven and fellow freshman Kate Walters, a setter, have all worked themselves into the rotation — with the highly touted Graven being an immediate team leader — in their first years in the program.
Still, one of the main reasons for the turnaround from last year’s 9-20 season, which included a six-match losing streak in all five-set matches, has been the maturity of a lineup that regularly featured seven first-year contributors.
Junior Catie Smith averages a team-high 3.07 kills per set in her second season as a starter. As she said, everything is calmer the second time around.
“Being in those games and seeing what it’s like to play in a college game, the pace and how fast it is, and just adjusting from high school and club, it’s different game,” Smith said. “And having that experience on the court, it’s not new for us this year.”
In a stark contrast from last season, Cal Poly has won four of five five-set matches this season, including two comeback victories where the Mustangs dropped the first two sets.
One was a season-opening victory over then-No. 17 Arizona. The other came in the Big West opener at UC Irvine last week.
“If you want to win big,” Stevenson said, “you have to learn how to play under difficult and uncomfortable circumstances. We certainly were put in those situations last year.
“To me, it’s more of a continuum. What we did last year was paid some serious dues and had our heart broken night after night after night.”