Sam Crosson has built the Cal Poly volleyball program into a West Coast power with a quiet confidence and calming demeanor.
Those traits helped Crosson land the head coaching job in San Luis Obispo seven years ago, when the program was reeling from allegations of sexual assault that led to the firing of former coach Jon Stevenson.
Crosson helped usher in a new era of Mustangs volleyball, one that has reached unprecedented heights the past two seasons.
Cal Poly put together its best season in program history by every measure last fall. The encore is shaping up be even more impressive.
The Mustangs are currently ranked No. 12 in the country, own a 16-1 record and have only gone to five sets once all season.
Crosson credits an infusion of talent that began in earnest in 2014 — as his own recruits began to make their mark — as one of the major reasons for the program’s trajectory.
“The goal for our program and for our team this year isn’t just to win the Big West Conference,” Crosson said. “The goal is to do something that we haven’t done before.”
Set up for success
Everything came together for Cal Poly a year ago.
The Mustangs went undefeated against Big West opponents and captured their first conference championship since 2010. They had a 22-game winning streak and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament, finishing the year 27-3 overall.
Despite losing a dynamic group of seniors to graduation — including Big West Player of the Year Taylor Nelson — Cal Poly has continued to build on that success.
The Mustangs enter Friday night’s home match against rival UC Santa Barbara with a 15-match winning streak. Cal Poly has won 23 Big West matches in a row and owns a 17-match winning streak inside Mott Athletics Center that dates back to 2016.
Replacing a player like Nelson, essentially a four-year starting quarterback and one of the best players in program history, was perhaps the biggest question mark this summer.
Enter freshman Avalon DeNecochea.
The 6-foot-2 DeNecochea seamlessly stepped into a pressure-packed position and took control of the Mustangs’ free-flowing offense.
“She’s certainly still a work in progress, and is obviously trying to get better herself,” Crosson said. “But from a team perspective, she has certainly won the respect of our upperclassmen, and they know that she’s going to go out there and compete with and for them.”
Cal Poly leads the Big West and ranks 11th nationally in hitting percentage at .284, thanks in no small part to DeNecochea.
It’s a sister thing
Sisters Torrey and Adlee Van Winden are the engine that makes the Mustangs go.
Torrey Van Winden, a junior, leads the Big West in hitting percentage (.369), ranks second in kills (299) and third in kills per set (5.07). She’s a surefire Big West Player of the Year candidate, Crosson said.
Adlee Van Winden, a senior, led Cal Poly in kills her first two years on campus before Torrey transferred from UCLA ahead of last season. They were both first-team all-conference selections last fall and make up one of the most challenging tandems to defend in the conference.
As for the perhaps touchy dynamic of younger-sister-surpassing-older-sister, Crosson said all Adlee Van Winden cares about is winning.
“Ultimately, Adlee is in the same boat that I am,” Crosson said. “She doesn’t care who gets the credit. She doesn’t care how many sets people are getting. She cares about whether or not she’s got players next to her on the court that are helping her win.”
The Van Windens — along with DeNecochea and senior Katherine Brouker — are the only players to appear in all 59 sets this season.
Crosson pointed to Brouker and Adlee Van Winden for their unwavering leadership and refusal to approach the season as a “rebuilding year” after the success of 2017.
Brouker is one the most underrated players in the Big West, Crosson said. She’s a skilled passer, defender and server who brings “an intangible that doesn’t get measured.”
“She is the glue of our group back there,” Crosson said.
On the road again
Cal Poly has 10 Big West matches remaining, including six of its last nine on the road.
If reaching the Sweet 16 is one of the team’s goals, the Mustangs will have to play well away from home.
That may have been a concern a few years ago, but Crosson believes this is one of the more mature teams he has coached, a group that is hyper-focused on taking care of the little things off the court.
His message is simple: Stay the course.
“It’s really trying to just keep them more in the moment on a day-to-day, week-to-week kind of short term focal points,” Crosson said. “This group has yet to really be distracted.”