When Todd Rogers was hired as head coach of the Cal Poly women’s beach volleyball team last February, it was clear he was taking over a program in its infancy.
Landing a coach with Rogers’ championship pedigree — he and former partner Phil Dalhausser were among the most dominant and recognizable tandem in the sport for the better part of a decade — gave the Mustangs a major shot of legitimacy in the college ranks.
Rogers’ arrival sparked some incremental improvements for the program, which is now in its fourth year.
Volleyball fans will get the chance to see Cal Poly in action during the Big West Beach Volleyball Championships held Friday and Saturday at Pismo Beach, with matches beginning at 10 a.m. Friday. All six teams in the conference will compete in the two-day, double-elimination tournament, with No. 5 Long Beach State and No. 6 Hawaii considered the favorites.
“Hopefully we play our best volleyball at the end of the season,” Rogers said this week. “That’s what you’re always trying to accomplish. It would be really nice to beat Long Beach or UH at the end of the year. Those two teams are going to the NCAAs irrespective of what happens here.”
Cal Poly won a school-record 12 matches this spring and showed it can compete with the top teams in the country that dot the West Coast.
Rogers said there are three tiers among the 54 Division I beach volleyball programs nationally, and the Mustangs are striving to work their way into the upper echelon. Cal Poly played 10 teams ranked in the top 15 this season, securing two upsets that went toward their 12-21 record.
Hosting the conference tournament is another step forward, according to the 43-year-old Rogers, a Santa Barbara native who lives in Solvang and makes the hourlong commute to San Luis Obispo County each day.
Rogers said the beach volleyball program started four years ago with a $10,000 grant from the indoor program and head coach Sam Crosson, and the budget increased to $15,000 last spring. That’s a fraction of what programs such as USC, UCLA and Hawaii have invested, leading Rogers to make a pitch to Cal Poly administrators for more funds.
He said the money was “bumped up significantly” this spring, but there’s still a long way to go.
Rogers hopes to be able to provide six scholarships in the coming years — right now the program can afford a little less than two — to help bridge the experience gap Cal Poly faces.
“Their beach experience has pretty much been at Cal Poly for a month, maybe two for the last couple years,” said Rogers, who won gold at the 2007 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships and the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. “That’s not enough when you’re playing against more beach-experienced girls, even if you’re maybe a superior athlete.”
I told the girls at the beginning of the year, we’ve got to get over the hump.
Cal Poly beach volleyball coach Todd Rogers
The potentially exciting part for Rogers is that most of the starting lineup Friday will be underclassmen.
Sophomore Adlee Van Winden and junior Taylor Nelson play together at No. 2, and junior Raeann Greisen and freshman Holland Boege, a San Luis Obispo High graduate, are paired together in the No. 3 spot.
Junior Savannah Niemen and senior Anna Gorman will play in the No. 4 spot, and sophomore Dora Beilin and freshman Brayden Gruenewald round out the lineup in the No. 5 position.
The 5-foot-11 Sonny drew particularly high praise from Rogers, given her growth since she arrived on campus in the fall.
“She just kept getting better and better,” Rogers said, “and literally by February she’s one of our top four players and there’s a pretty good argument to be made that she may very well be the best player on the team.”
Rogers understands it will be an uphill climb to develop Cal Poly into the program he wants it to be. He estimates it would take about $300,000 per year to run a fully funded program with paid assistants, full scholarships, gear and a reasonable travel budget.
The Mustangs aren’t there yet, but they seem to have the right man leading the charge to make it happen.
“I told the girls at the beginning of the year,” Rogers said, “we’ve got to get over the hump.”
Big West Conference Beach Volleyball Championships
Friday pairings at Pismo Beach
Match 1: No. 4 CSUN vs. No. 5 Sacramento State
Match 2: No. 3 Cal Poly vs. No. 6 CSU Bakersfield
Match 3: No. 1 Long Beach State vs. Match 1 winner
Match 4: No. 2 Hawaii vs. Match 2 winner
Match 5: Match 2 loser vs. Match 3 loser
Match 6: Match 1 loser vs. Match 4 loser