Cal Poly

Cal Poly volleyball hopes to keep Big West title hopes alive as rival UCSB comes to town

The Cal Poly volleyball team plays its most important match of the season on Saturday in a Blue-Green rivalry showdown with UCSB, and it could go a long way to deciding who has a shot at the Big West Conference title and an NCAA tournament berth.

The final contest this year against the Gauchos should make a typically “electric” home fan experience even more thrilling than usual.

The Mustangs have a 29-game home winning streak on the line, buoyed by raucous, supportive crowds at Mott Gym, especially for big weekend matches that can sell out.

“It’s an amazing experience when I walk in and I can’t see a green seat in the house,” said Maia Dvoracek, a junior outside hitter. “It’s one of the coolest feelings in the world knowing all these people are here to see us play.”

The Mustangs rank second in California in volleyball attendance to Stanford, according to Cal Poly’s Athletics department.

“The environment this gym provides is not only one of the best in California. But it’s one of the best in the country,” said first-year head coach Caroline Walters, who’s in her 11th year with the program. “I think the ability for our fans to come out in the community and support us, it only helps us. It absolutely leads to wins.”

The Mustangs (16-7, 9-2 Big West Conference) expect another packed house for Saturday’s match, which begins at 7 p.m. and also falls on Alumni Night, honoring past players from many eras.

What’s at stake on Saturday

The match is critical for both Cal Poly and UCSB.

As it stands now, the two rivals and the University of Hawaii all have two losses in conference, but Hawaii has the inside track to the NCAA tournament because they hold the tiebreaker over the others.

If Cal Poly and Hawaii both win out over their last five games, they will be Big West co-champions with Hawaii taking the automatic NCAA bid.

If Hawaii loses a game and the Mustangs win their remaining five matches, Cal Poly would be sole Big West champions and receive the automatic NCAA bid.

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Cal Poly earned a 3-0 win over CSUN on Oct. 29. David Middlecamp

How they got here

With their winning streak on the line, the Mustangs will face a tough opponent in the Gauchos, who won their first head-to-head match 3-1 on Oct. 19 in Isla Vista.

“I thought UCSB played about the best match they could have played against us in that first one,” Walters said. “They executed extremely well.”

Cal Poly is coming off of a 3-1 road loss to No. 19 Hawaii on Sunday, a team they beat 3-0 at home on Oct. 11, and look to rebound off that setback.

Madilyn Mercer goes for the kill in Cal Poly’s 3-0 Oct. 29 win over CSUN. David Middlecamp

Walters said the Mustangs played a difficult preseason schedule, facing off against four teams in the top 25 — Kentucky, Pittsburgh, Utah and Colorado State — losing to all but Utah, which they beat 3-2 on Sept. 14.

“By facing nationally ranked teams, and one of the toughest RPIs (strength of schedule), that has helped prepare our players for big matches,” Walters said. “Beating Utah in five sets was a great experience. We can compete against nationally ranked teams.”

The RPI could help Cal Poly earn an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament if Hawaii and the Mustangs both win out.

Team leaders

The team has set a tone with tough defense and solid serving, along with a varied attack up front.

Dvoracek, a 6-foot-1 lefty who is a former All-American high school player from Truckee, is among the key players to watch, leading the team with 356 kills, second in the Big West Conference, while leading the conference with 0.59 service aces per set.

Lea Ungar digs the ball in the back row. Cal Poly improves to 16-6 with a three game win over CSUN on the way to a Big West showdown with rival for first place UCSB. David Middlecamp

Other conference leaders include Mika Dickson, ranked fifth in digs with 308, and Avalon DeNecochea, who’s third in assists per set at 9.27.

Walters said that a point of emphasis has been to try to maintain a steady emotional approach to matches.

In a recent win against Cal State Northridge, Cal Poly dominated the match 3-0 — winning 25-19, 25-18 and 25-15 and Walters was pleased with the even-keel approach.

“When you’re playing great and making plays, you’re excited,” Walters said. “And then you have a bit of a lull. So, we’ve talked about trying to limit those peaks and valleys and just be steady and settle early.”

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.