Cal Poly

Emily Sonny chose beach volleyball over water polo. Now she’s an emerging star at Cal Poly

Highlights from the Big West Beach Volleyball Championships in Pismo Beach

The Cal Poly Mustangs hosted the Big West Beach Volleyball Championships on Friday at Pismo Beach.
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The Cal Poly Mustangs hosted the Big West Beach Volleyball Championships on Friday at Pismo Beach.

Even though Emily Sonny has lived on the Central Coast for a few years now, there are still moments when she looks down the shoreline at Pismo Beach and feels the need to pinch herself.

“I’m just honestly so lucky to play here every day,” said Sonny, a freshman standout on Cal Poly’s rising beach volleyball team. “No other school is like this.”

Despite her relative lack of experience on the sand — she was a two-sport star in water polo and indoor volleyball at Arroyo Grande High School — Sonny has enjoyed a breakout freshman season under the guidance of second-year head coach and Olympic gold medalist Todd Rogers.

This spring has been one long lesson in the rigors of beach volleyball for the 5-foot-11 Sonny, who has teamed with junior transfer Hannah Hubbard to form the Mustangs’ No. 1 pairing.

Sonny and Hubbard won two of their three matches Friday during the Big West Beach Volleyball Championships held at Pismo Beach, with the lone loss coming against Hawaii’s Mikayla Tucker and Morgan Martin in a thrilling three-set matchup.

In the team competition, third-seeded Cal Poly swept No. 6 Cal State Bakersfield and No. 4 CSUN, but the Mustangs fell 4-1 against a veteran Hawaii squad ranked sixth in the country. The Mustangs now face a rematch aganist Cal State Bakersfield on Saturday, the final day of the double-elimination tournament.

Rogers said it was the first time this season Sonny and Hubbard lost to the Rainbow Warriors, noting the increasingly windy conditions were a factor for both sides.

“It’s the great equalizer,” said Rogers, whose professional beach volleyball career spanned 20 years and included Olympic appearance in Athens, Beijing and London.

If it weren’t for Rogers, there’s a chance Sonny never would have ended up at Cal Poly.

After a decorated two-year run at Arroyo Grande, where she shared Tribune Girls Volleyball Player of the Year accolades with team Ashlyn Herlihy in 2015, Sonny was ready to continue her athletic career as a member of Arizona State’s water polo team.

But a change of heart the summer before her freshman year — coupled with the financial burden of the looming out-of-state tuition — led to Sonny backing out of her commitment to Arizona State.

She had a passion for volleyball, and with the wear and tear on her knees taking a toll, joining Cal Poly’s beach team seemed like the perfect fit.

Sonny went on to earn her spot in the No. 1 position with Hubbard, and together they scrapped their way to a .500 record against a challenging schedule that included 10 teams ranked in the top 15 nationally.

Hubbard has been something of a mentor to Sonny, given her two years of beach volleyball experience at Boise State. Hubbard enjoys playing alongside Sonny because she brings a physical and competitive edge to the team and is eager to absorb new information.

“It’s been fun to kind of coach her and mentor her and be kind of the leader for our team,” Hubbard said. “She’s evolving so well. She’s a crazy athlete and is picking up the game so fast.”

Sonny said the biggest adjustment from the indoor game to the beach — beside, obviously, the playing surface — is having only one other teammate on the court. Each player has to be mentally and physically locked in on every point or things can turn in a hurry.

“You can’t really get down on yourself,” Sonny said, “because you have to pick up your partner, too.”

That’s the type of mindset Rogers is trying to build upon at Cal Poly.

The Mustangs will be playing catch up on Big West powers Hawaii and Long Beach State for the foreseeable future as Rogers continues to build the program from the ground up.

He notices a mental edge when he watches Hawaii play, a we’re-the-best attitude that trickles down the lineup. Rogers believes those characteristics will come with time and more success at Cal Poly.

“It is changing,” Rogers said. “It’s definitely changing, and I see it in the girls.”

Big West Beach Volleyball Championships

Friday: Cal Poly swept Cal State Bakersfield and CSUN, and fell 4-1 against Hawaii in the double-elimination tournament.

Saturday: Cal Poly vs. Cal State Bakersfield, 11 a.m.

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