Jon Stevenson rattles off the resume like he was thinking of only one thing this offseason.
The Cal Poly volleyball team was 9-1 in its final 10 matches in 2010, finishing above the magic 20-win threshold with a 22-7 record.
The Mustangs were 3-1 against top 25 teams, losing their only match against a ranked opponent to Nebraska, a team that finished 29-3 and advanced to the NCAA regional round for the 17th straight season.
It hasn’t sat well with Stevenson that Cal Poly failed to make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007 after a second-place finish in the Big West Conference.
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“Last year, we just got totally robbed by the selection committee,” Stevenson said. “It was just a shame because that was such an exciting team with Dominique Olowolafe and with Jen Keddy coming into her own. And with everyone getting healthy, we kept getting better and better and better.”
Though Stevenson will debate whether it should be the case, the Big West hasn’t had the RPI numbers to warrant an at-large berth to the NCAAs, so the Mustangs are resigned to the fact that the one true way back to the tournament lies with winning the conference’s automatic bid. With high-leaping middle blocker Olowolafe gone, Cal Poly lost a dominant presence, but with two other All-American candidates a year older, the roster a bit healthier and some freshmen to add to the rotation, the Mustangs appear poised to take another step forward.
After a senior-laden team went out with a disappointing thud in the 2008 regular season and a young group led by six freshmen took its lumps in a 9-20 campaign in 2009, Cal Poly had what Stevenson described as a rebirth.
And all but two of the main players are back, including Keddy, an AVCA third-team All-America middle blocker that racked up 348 kills at a team-best .354 hitting percentage.
Keddy also had a team-high 125 blocks, more than twice as many as anyone else on the team.
One of five remaining from that 2009 class of freshmen back for her junior season, the 6-foot-4 Keddy has come a long way from her days as a prep star, albeit highly touted, in isolated Missoula, Mont.
“Throughout the years, I’ve gotten mentally stronger, and that’s a big thing,” said Keddy, who participated in an invite-only tryout for the National Youth Team at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in the offseason. “My freshman year, we didn’t have that great of a season. That’s helped me gain a lot of mental strength, and now everything seems easy.”
Fellow junior Chelsea Hardin, an outside hitter who started as a freshman in 2009, is also back after sitting out almost all of last season with a back injury.
Second-year starter Sarah Cawrse brings stability and an effective serve to the setter position, and the team’s only other senior, 6-2 outside hitter Katie Smith, returns after a breakout season in which she was second on the team with 349 kills and first with 42 service aces.
Midway through training camp, freshmen Crystal Dedes, a 6-2 outside hitter, Allison Lee, a 6-0 outside hitter, and Stacia Williams, a 5-6 libero, are also competing for playing time.
And the above names say nothing of the sophomore centerpiece, reigning Big West and AVCA West Region freshman of the year Kristina Graven.
Graven stepped right into the lineup and immediately led the team with 458 kills, hitting .264 on a team-high 1,203 total attacks.
Though Graven essentially had an ideal first season on campus, the 6-0 outside hitter did have to adjust to some of the techniques taught by Stevenson that clashed with the practices of her high school and club teams.
It means that unflappable as she was as the team leaned heavily on her for points as a freshman, Graven is even more confident this year, agreeing with Stevenson that the team has a potential NCAA run in it.
“It’s definitely a lot nicer this year just knowing the system that we play in and more of the body movement patterns that we play in now,” Graven said. “So, I’m not learning something completely different. I just feel a little bit more comfortable in the system.
“We have all the pieces and all the players that we can be a really good team this year. We just need to get the fine points ironed out.”