Cal Poly

Cal Poly volleyball is in the NCAA Tournament again. How one brave decision made it possible

The Cal Poly volleyball team raises its second consecutive Big West Conference championship trophy.
The Cal Poly volleyball team raises its second consecutive Big West Conference championship trophy. Cal Poly Athletics

It was the opening day and just the second match of the new season for the Cal Poly volleyball team. Even so, head coach Sam Crosson took a hard look at the strategy he took into that late August tournament in Pittsburgh — and he scrapped it.

The Mustangs were handed a 3-1 loss to then No. 20 Pittsburgh, inspiring Crosson to switch his offense from a 6-2 rotation to a 5-1 — a move that funnels the attack through one setter with five hitters on the court.

In the Mustangs’ case, that meant centering on freshman setter Avalon DeNecochea.

“We’re in the same boat that Hawaii has been in for many years,” Crosson said, referring to the relatively weak competition in Cal Poly’s conference. “You only have a handful of games, at most, where you are actually pushed on the court.”

So Crosson used that match — even if it was just the second one of the season — as a measuring stick.

The Mustangs (25-2) have lost one match since — 3-2 to Hawaii on Oct. 26 — en route to a second consecutive Big West title and NCAA Tournament berth. It is the 16th NCAA Tournament appearance for the program and the first back-to-back appearance since 2006-07.

No. 14 Cal Poly will face unranked University of San Diego (16-12), the second-place team from the West Coast Conference, in the first round of the tournament Friday at the Galen Center in the USC sub-regional. The Mustangs haven’t beaten the Toreros since 2000 and are 10-16 all-time against them.

Crosson also earned his second Big West Coach of the Year honor, as well.

Cal Poly v UCLA vb124879
Cal Poly freshman Avalon DeNecochea returns a ball during a game against UCLA earlier this season at Mott Athletics Center in San Luis Obispo, California. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

“We were systematically a completely different team,” Crosson said of that opening weekend. “We took a hard right and went to a 5-1 with Avalon. The rest is history.”

The 5-1 formation — which Cal Poly employed last year spearheaded by Taylor Nelson, a four-year starter and Big West Player of the Year as a senior who is second all-time in assists in program history — allows for a more consistent set. With Nelson graduated, Crosson wasn’t sure if DeNecochea could fill that role right away.

A regression would have been understandable.

Instead, behind DeNecochea — who was named Big West Co-Freshman of the Year — the Mustangs have continued their success from last season. Cal Poly had the Big West’s leading hitting percentage, buoyed by Big West Player of the Year Torrey Van Winden and All-Big West first-team selections Adlee Van Winden and Madilyn Mercer.

Libero Katherine Brouker, freshman middle blocker Meredith Phillips and DeNecochea each received honorable mentions.

“We have a more complete team than we did last year,” Crosson said. “We are more balanced when we want to be.”

Cal Poly lost one just more match than last season, and beat UCLA on back-to-back nights — the team that knocked them out in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year.

Crosson added that they are able to lean on Torrey Van Winden as much or as little as they need to. Van Winden had an average 5.07 kills per set, good for third in Division I and finished with 20 or more kills nine times.

“She’s garnered the trust and respect of her teammates, especially the upperclassman,” Crosson said of DeNecochea, who has 949 assists this season. “Probably the biggest thing is that she has a presence out there. She has a presence at the net, is vocal with the players and confident with herself.”

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Head coach Sam Crosson has helped build the Cal Poly volleyball team into a nationally-respected program during his seven years on campus. He is leaving to coach Cal Berkeley’s women’s volleyball team. tgibson@thetribunenews.com Travis Gibson

DeNecochea verbally committed as a sophomore out of University High School in San Diego. She had no inkling of the potential to start following the departure of Nelson.

“When I committed, I had no idea, at all,” DeNecochea said. “I didn’t know what I was getting into. It’s been a really good experience.”

For Crosson, matches like the one against Pittsburgh are some of the most important of the season. Cal Poly only plays a few tournament-quality opponents during the year.

Crosson stressed that anything can happen in the tournament, especially in volleyball.

Sub-regional host USC (21-10), nationally ranked 11th and the third-place team from the Pac-12 Conference, faces Samford, with the winner facing either Cal Poly or San Diego.

“We’re not playing San Diego 10 times or USC 10 times,” Crosson said. “It’s just three out of five to 25.”

All the matches from the USC sub-regional will be streamed on Pac-12.com.

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