The Cal Poly volleyball team’s bubble burst Sunday, and the Mustangs had some gripes, but even though they aren’t in the NCAA Tournament, head coach Jon Stevenson said, signs point to an impending return to the postseason.
With a resume worth considering, Cal Poly was likely one of the last left out of the 64-team bracket when it was announced on ESPNEWS.
Hoping to gain an at-large berth after a hot finish helped them secure second place in the Big West Conference, a 22-7 record and a few upsets were not enough to overcome a low RPI in the eyes of the selection committee.
“This group should really be proud of what we did,” said Stevenson, who was looking to take the Mustangs back to the tournament after a two-year absence. “They played some great volleyball, made major improvements and put themselves in position. I believe, as I told you yesterday, we are one of the top 25 teams in the country, but it doesn’t matter because the committee doesn’t know the nuances of our team.”
Coming off a 9-20 season, Cal Poly withstood season-ending injuries to two of its top returning hitters and more minor injuries to its top two middle blockers to have a bounce-back year.
Receiving votes in the final regular-season top-25 coaches’ poll, the Mustangs beat No. 20 Arizona in nonconference play and twice toppled conference foe Long Beach State, which fell out of the rankings late after being a fixture all season.
Cal Poly won eight of its final 10 matches to tie the 49ers in the Big West standings. After sweeping Long Beach State (25-7) in the season series, the Mustangs felt like the outright second-place team.
The selection committee did not feel the same.
The 49ers, who won national championships in 1989, 1993 and 1998 and have made every NCAA Tournament since 1986, were awarded an at-large berth and will play San Diego (23-5) on Friday at USC’s Galen Center.
The major difference: Long Beach State had a final RPI — which combines the winning percentage of a team’s opponents and winning percentage of the opponents of opponents to determine strength — of 31.
Cal Poly’s final RPI was 61.
Though the Mustangs only had two fewer wins in two fewer matches and beat the 49ers twice, the RPI says the 49ers had the tougher schedule.
Northwestern (19-12) was the eighth team selected out of the Big Ten, a record for the conference. With just a 4-10 record down the stretch, the Wildcats still put up an RPI of 21.
Kentucky (17-13) — the sixth team out of the Southeast Conference — has the lowest win total of any at-large squad in the bracket, but the Wildcats’ RPI was 15 spots better than Cal Poly’s.
Leading up to the selection, the biggest criticism of Cal Poly was its schedule, but Stevenson doesn’t believe it should have kept the Mustangs out.
“To say that we had a powederpuff schedule is ridiculous,” Stevenson said. “We went after people, and we won a lot of important matches.”
Cal Poly was 3-0 against the Pac-10 this season, with wins over Arizona, Oregon State and Washington State. Low points were a 3-1 loss to Idaho State and a 3-2 loss to Notre Dame, neither of which are NCAA Tournament teams.
Of the Mustangs’ four Big West losses, three went five sets and Cal Poly failed to convert match points in two of them.
One came to rival UC Santa Barbara at home and another to conference champion Cal State Fullerton (26-5), which will play Colorado State in Stanford’s Maples Pavillion in the first round on Friday.
“We only have ourselves to blame,” Stevenson said. “Four match points against Fullerton. We had UCSB in our home gym and 2,000 people in there, and we can’t put them away in five.
“Those matches hurt in hindsight, and it makes me think, ‘Well, you’ve just got to stick with it,’ because with this group, we have the right pieces.”
Already the youngest team in the Big West, the Mustangs will lose two seniors: All-conference first-team middle blocker Dominique Olowolafe and honorable mention libero Alison Mort.
Cal Poly won 10 matches in a row during a stretch where Olowolafe was out with a broken thumb, and fellow middle blocker Jennifer Keddy, who played the first third of the season with an abdominal strain, was also an all-conference first-team honoree.
Outside hitters Megan McConnell and Chelsea Hardin, who combined to make 51 appearances as true freshmen in 2009, both missed the season with separate injuries, and Stevenson expects them to return fully healthy as redshirt sophomores next year.
Seven of the team’s top eight hitters are set to return, including Big West Freshman of the Year Kristina Graven, as is junior setter Sarah Cawrse.
If Cal Poly was on the verge of a postseason bid this year, Stevenson said, it should have the inside track next season.
“I’ve enjoyed this team more than any I’ve ever had,” he said. “They’re wonderful kids to work with, and I expect that they’re going to get a little chip on their shoulder.”