With his team at an NCAA Tournament for the first time in its Division I program history, Andre Dome can look up at the street lights in Palo Alto and see Cal Poly in some pretty good company.
On banners advertising the start of today’s four-team men’s tennis regional hosted by national power Stanford, the Mustangs — led by the sophomore from Arroyo Grande — are up there with the Cardinal, first-round opponent Washington and Army.
Cal Poly’s inclusion in the promo via its at-large selection to the tournament is a testament to the status of the program.
Non-automatic postseason berths are rare accomplishments for even the best sports on campus, and the breakthrough serves as a confidence boost.
“I feel like we’re just getting some respect now,” Dome said. “In the years past, Cal Poly, you don’t really look at them, but now, we put our name on the map. It’s pretty cool that the NCAA committee saw us and invited us to the tournament.”
Ranked 45th in the country in a field that includes less than 50 at-large selections, the Mustangs used to think the only road to the NCAA Tournament was through a Big West Conference Championship.
But both the Cal Poly men and women, who play No. 24 Oklahoma on Saturday in a regional at Baylor’s campus in Waco, Texas, broke that convention this season.
In 17 years since moving to Division I in 1994, only the women had ever gained entry to the NCAA Tournament. Their only conference title in 2003 was followed by a first-round sweep at the hands of Georgia Tech.
This year is not only the first that both have made the tournament at the same time, it’s the first that either has ever been awarded an at-large bid.
“It’s huge because I believe it’s something that’s going to happen regularly in the future,” said Cal Poly women’s head coach Hugh Bream, who will retire after the season after nearly 20 years coaching at the school. “I feel like both programs have just been building.”
Said Mustangs men’s head coach Justin McGrath: “To get an at-large berth into the tournament, it doesn’t matter if you’re 45, you’re good. That’s a high level.
“It makes me happy for the women and to see Hugh Bream go out this way. You always would like to leave your career going out on a high note. Phil Jackson probably didn’t enjoy going out against the Dallas Mavs.”
With the pressure on, both Cal Poly teams made early exits at the Big West Tournament, but from this point on, neither Cal Poly team has anything to lose.
The men will play the No. 25 Huskies (17-8) at 11 a.m. in a rematch of one of their earliest losses of the season.
Washington topped the Mustangs 6-1 in Seattle in late January to hand Cal Poly (14-6) its only loss in the team’s first six matches. The Mustangs were able to win the doubles point but were swept in singles.
The difference this time around is that the match will be played in the outdoor courts at Stanford as opposed to the Huskies’ indoor facility — helping to lessen the impact of Washington’s hard serves — and Cal Poly players will not be in awe of any mystique.
“I feel like that’s one of the reasons I’m super excited,” Dome said, “because we’ve played Washington already. Yeah, they’re a big school, they’re ranked pretty high, but we know what to expect.
“We might turn some heads. I think we can do it. I’m very excited for the opportunity.”
The women’s team is also looking to capitalize on a care-free approach.
Though Cal Poly (16-6) did not face Oklahoma (18-6) this season, the Mustangs were pleasantly surprised when a young team that lost four of six starters to graduation last year was able to have a successful season.
Four freshmen stepped right into the rotation, which also included sophomore Alexa Lee at No. 1 singles.
All of Cal Poly’s singles players posted a winning record in a season that was supposed to be a rebuilding transition from the departure of two of the program’s best players, Brittany Blalock and Suzie Matzenauer.
Now, this unheralded team has brought Bream to a place the previous two never did, to a postseason match with a national power.
“Any time Cal Poly gets the opportunity to play against the premier, established names of Division I in any sport, it’s an opportunity for us,” Bream said. “Certainly, Oklahoma has the type of budget and infrastructure where they’re shooting to win a national championship in every sport they have. Along with that privilege is going to be some pressure because we have nothing to lose, and we’re a bunch of scrappy players.”