When Cal Poly volleyball head coach Sam Crosson has some free time, he sometimes likes to go back and watch his team’s October match against Hawaii.
It’s not to compile a scouting report or game plan for next season — he’s just looking for the reactions at the end of the match. He wants to see the joy on his players’ faces one more time. It was back in October when, he said, the team started to realize they can hang with the best in NCAA.
Cal Poly was down two sets to none in that match against Hawaii. But even with such a deficit against a team that had won the Big West title four of the last five seasons, the Mustangs — who hadn’t won a conference title since 2010 — didn’t blink. Cal Poly won the next three sets to topple the Rainbow Warriors and announce to the rest of the volleyball world that the Mustangs were here to stay in 2017.
“Since I have been here, it has always just been Hawaii. That’s the bar,” Crosson said. “The way we lost the first two, it showed a lot about just who the team was. That catapulted the belief. It just confirmed for the girls that, ‘Yeah, we really can do this.’ ”
Season to remember
Not only did they do it once, but Cal Poly beat Hawaii twice en route to the most successful season in school history since joining in the Division I ranks in 1979. Cal Poly won 22 straight games in 2017 and became the first team in school history to win an undefeated Big West title (26-2, 16-0 Big West). It was Cal Poly’s first conference title in 10 years. It was also the first time since 2008 that Cal Poly was ranked in the Top 25, ending the season at No. 21.
The Big West title earned Cal Poly an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
In the first round, UCLA transfer Torrey Van Winden — the biggest addition to this year’s team — dominated in her old stomping grounds at Pauley Pavilion, leading the Mustangs to a 3-0 win alongside her older sister, Adlee Van Winden. The sisters led the attack for Cal Poly all season, combined for 824 kills and 481 digs. Crosson called Torrey Van Winden the “missing piece” that helped jump-start a fairytale season for the Mustangs.
But the fairytale came to an end Saturday in Los Angeles.
In a match against Torrey Van Winden’s old UCLA team in the second round, Cal Poly won the first set, but eventually lost to the four-time NCAA champions in four sets. It was only the third loss for mid-major Cal Poly, and each came against a PAC 12 school ranked in the Top 25.
“The vibe after was positively emotional,” said Crosson, who was named Big West Coach of the Year. “My final comments to them was just thank you. I think I got as much out of them for what they put in this year than anything. The biggest disappointment is that we don’t get to practice together on Monday.”
Crosson will also say goodbye to a trio of seniors who have been through a lot in four years.
Raeann Greisen arrived for her freshman season at Cal Poly in 2014 along with setter Taylor Nelson and middle blocker Savannah Niemen, part of an incoming class of seven.
But a rough season and the demands of being a college athlete thinned the group.
“It was hard being in a program when you are not winning that much,” said Greisen, an outside hitter from San Diego. “We were working so hard and not getting that reward.”
Eventually, Nelson, Niemen and Greisen were all that remained of the 2014 class, which makes this season’s turnaround that much sweeter for Greisen.
“It was something we never expected coming in. It has been so great being with Taylor and Sav(annah)through this whole experience,” said Greisen, who was third on the team with 261 kills and named First-Team All-Big West this season. “We had some really hard practices and days where we probably wanted to give up, but this season made every single one of those days worth it.”
Nelson, who was the architect of the Mustangs’ offensive attack, was named the Big West Player of the Year. Niemen finished the regular season as the Big West leader in hitting with a .398 average.
Now, as the seniors depart, Crosson will need to find ways to find the void left behind — in leadership and kills.
Three hours after the UCLA match, Crosson had a question for his wife, Courtney: “So how do we top this next year?”
It will start with those who remain in the program, such as 6-foot-4 middle blocker Madilyn Mercer, who came on strong at the end of the season. In November, Crosson also signed three players expected to compete for playing time: middle blocker Meredith Phillips from Houston, libero Lea Ungar from Manhattan Beach and 6-foot-3 setter Avalon DeNecochea out of San Diego.
Crosson said he expects next season’s team to be deeper and believes Cal Poly has “the talent in our gym to be able to compete for a conference title next year.”
Even if Cal Poly has another successful season, it will be a tall task to top the best in program history — one that Greisen will never forget.
“I think it finally kind of set in that we made such a big mark on this program,” Greisen said. “Being done with it now and looking back, it was probably the best experience of my life.”