Cal Poly

Cal Poly volleyball team returns home amid distractions

It’s been an eventful road trip for the Cal Poly volleyball team.

During a 12-match stretch that ends with today’s 7 p.m. home opener against Cal State Bakersfield, the Mustangs saw their head coach abruptly removed from the team and replaced by a third-year assistant. They also saw their fortunes altered from a potential postseason performer to a sub-.500 squad with a revolving door at setter.

Losers of seven of their past eight after a 3-1 start under former coach Jon Stevenson, Cal Poly players and interim head coach Caroline Walters say they’re ready to move on.

“We were not expecting it at all, but I think we’ve come to accept it,” senior outside hitter Catie Smith said. “It’s not that we’re happy or that we’re sad, we are just OK with it. It happened. We’re going to deal with it, and we’re going to move forward.”

Though he said it was weeks in the making, athletic director Don Oberhelman’s decision to remove Stevenson for what Oberhelman termed a lack of confidence in the coach’s leadership and a concern for student welfare was a shock to Walters, who learned the day before a trip to Utah that she would be taking over and a two-person staff would now be tasked with the work of three.

Walters was “completely blindsided,” she said. “I think as blindsided as everyone. That first weekend in Utah, we were just all hanging on for dear life because it came on a Wednesday, and we left Thursday. So completely blindsided, but the girls, they’re smiling, and that’s all that really matters, just giving them the best experience.”

Stevenson had eyes on building a team strong enough to contend for an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament and was offended when the Mustangs were left out last season.

Now that it’s become public that Stevenson was the subject of an internal sexual harassment investigation in 2010 — which allows the assumption it had something to do with his removal more than a year later — his vision for the team has evaporated, and the current squad is focused solely on earning the Big West Conference’s automatic postseason berth for its champion.

“The results haven’t been exactly what we wanted,” sophomore outside hitter Kristina Graven said, “but I still think we’re an extremely talented team and going into conference, we can still win the Big West.

“We haven’t practiced with Caroline all but three times, really. I think we need to just get in the gym, and we’ll be perfectly fine in the Big West.”

Cal Poly has spent most of the time since Stevenson’s ouster playing matches on the road rather than practicing in Mott Gym under Walters, and though Walters said her goal is to keep as much continuity as possible, she has made lineup changes, mostly on the fly.

After beginning the season with returning starter Sarah Cawrse at setter, Stevenson seemed to settle on walk-on freshman Shannon Garrett at the setter spot. Garrett was setting for most of the Mustangs’ first three victories and a five-set loss to nationally ranked San Diego.

Two matches after Stevenson’s departure, Garrett began to split time with sophomore Kate Walters, Caroline Walters’ younger sister. Kate Walters has played the majority of the past four matches, which included three losses and a victory over Middle Tennessee, the only post-Stevenson win for Cal Poly.

Caroline Walters said there is still uncertainty at the position and said she will rely on practice statistics to determine the next match’s starter.

Calling it an open competition, Walters said: “Setting is probably the biggest question mark for us. We’re trying to give them all a fair shot. It’s hard to make a decision based on what we’ve seen in practice.

“It’s all about chemistry.”

Outsiders seeking information about Stevenson’s role with Cal Poly when it was in question and since he’s been removed has been the biggest distraction for the team.

Whether or not missing the former head coach has affected team chemistry is up for debate, but the results are the facts, and the Mustangs are focused on winning.

“It’s unfortunate,” Smith said about the losses, “but we’re going to change that, we’re going to come in and win the Big West.

“We haven’t lost our competitive spirit at all. That stayed the same, and I think that’s really important for us to win some matches in the coming week.”