To Cal Poly, it was like losing a championship match, and the emotion reflected it.
When the final point caromed backward off senior Catie Smith’s arm for an ace serve, she clasped her hands together in disappointment.
Setter Kate Walters pulled her shirt up over her face. Middle blocker Jennifer Keddy fought hard to quell sprouting tears.
The Mustangs volleyball team had its Mott Gym mojo working and could practically taste a victory over first-place Long Beach State on Friday, but in the end, the 49ers fought off three match-points to hand Cal Poly its first home loss of the season, 3-2, and deal the Mustangs’ title hopes a potentially critical blow.
Set scores were 25-22, 21-25, 18-25, 25-19, 20-18.
“Long Beach knew what was on the line,” Cal Poly interim head coach Caroline Walters said. “We knew what was on the line, and it’s fun. It’s fun to compete like that, and it’s fun to be in a position where you get to compete like that.”
Keddy had a career-high 27 kills and 10 digs. Walters had a career-high 64 assists, Molly Pon had a career-high 16 kills, Kristina Graven added 19 kills and libero Lauren Law tallied 19 digs.
But similar to a five-set loss in Long Beach, the Mustangs (9-12, 4-4 Big West) could not put the 49ers (13-6, 7-2 Big West) away.
After taking a timeout when a big lead turned into an 18-16 advantage in the fourth set, Cal Poly had trouble stopping the resilient 49ers.
Including three points before the timeout, Long Beach State finished the set on a 12-1 run to force sudden death.
The run of points was spurred by 49ers middle blocker Haleigh Hampton, who had 17 kills and a match-high six blocks (including four in that set alone) and gave Long Beach State all the momentum Cal Poly had squirreled away in victories in the second and third sets.
“A (12-1) run is awful, but there’s not much that we can do,” Caroline Walters said. “There’s things we can get better at, but there was no stopping that run. Hampton turned it on. That was the best she blocked the whole match. The best she played the whole match was at the end of game four.”
It was reminiscent of the match between the two teams in late September when the Mustangs had a match point in the fifth set but lost four straight points to come home empty-handed.
Cal Poly had its chances in the fifth set Friday, too.
The Mustangs had leads of 14-13, 15-14 and 16-15 — one point away from pulling the upset each time — and each time, 49ers hitter Caitlin Ledoux came up with the kill to keep Long Beach State alive.
After miscommunication between Pon and Kate Walters caused a passing miscue, the 49ers had the next three match points, during which Graven and Keddy responded. The third match point serve got away from Smith on the back row.
“That’s the way we want to lose is swinging for the final point and putting everything out on the line,” Caroline Walters said, “and I’m so proud of the way our team played in that final game. It would have been nice to get a win in that match, but it was a great match. That’s one of the best matches I’ve been a part of.”
The Mustangs needed a run of victories to remain in contention for the Big West title and, ultimately, the automatic NCAA Tournament berth that goes along with it.
Three road losses put Cal Poly’s back to the wall, and the Mustangs had won four of the past five to scratch back into a three-way tie with UC Santa Barbara and Cal State Fullerton for second place.
A victory over Long Beach State, with the Titans due to visit Mott Gym today, would have put Cal Poly just one game behind the 49ers with eight more conference matches left.
The Mustangs still have time to right the ship, but they have to hinge their hopes on a collapse by the teams ahead of them.“We have to respond to this loss and bounce back against Fullerton,” Caroline Walters said.