There’s a different vibe within the Cal Poly volleyball team this fall, one Taylor Gruenewald described as considerably more competitive than years past.
It’s not difficult for the senior middle blocker to look back on a trying 2014 season in which the Mustangs fielded the youngest of more than 330 NCAA Division I programs.
In many ways, that year set the stage for a potentially exciting 2016 campaign that officially begins Friday afternoon at the BYU Invitational.
“We’ve never had this much depth on a team,” said Gruenewald, Cal Poly’s only four-year senior. “It’s so competitive in the gym because everyone’s fighting for that spot — which is great — and I think that’s going to make us really successful this year.”
Several of the Cal Poly veterans who were pressed into starting roles as freshmen two years ago spearheaded a major turnaround last fall. The result was a 19-win campaign and a third-place finish in the Big West Conference behind perennial power Hawaii and Long Beach State.
With four first-team all-conference performers returning in Gruenewald, junior setter Taylor Nelson, junior outside hitter Raeann Greisen and sophomore outside hitter Adlee Van Winden, the Mustangs were picked to repeat their third-place finish in the preseason Big West coaches poll.
Fifth-year head coach Sam Crosson said last week he’s been impressed with the level of intensity in practice, adding that the biggest focus for this year’s group is consistency.
No longer able to play the inexperienced card, Crosson said the veteran returners invested more time this summer with the hopes of taking another step forward.
“I think this is really our year,” Nelson said.
Crosson expects the nonconference slate to be a significant challenge, with matchups against No. 11 Stanford, No. 13 BYU and No. 22 Western Kentucky dotting the schedule leading up to the Big West opener against No. 6 Hawaii in late September.
In the process, Crosson has six talented freshmen on the roster — including San Luis Obispo High School graduate and former Tribune County Player of the Year Holland Boege — he hopes to incorporate into the mix.
Unlike 2014, he won’t have to count on the entire class for playing time immediately.
“They’ve got a very good group of upperclassmen, in terms of personalities,” Crosson said, “to help them with that transition period.”
Perhaps no player on the roster will influence the newcomers more than Van Winden, the 2015 Big West Freshman of the Year.
Throughout a dominant first season, the 6-foot-1 Van Winden collected a conference-record seven Big West Freshman of the Week awards and finished fourth in the conference in kills (391) and kills per set (3.91). She was one of three Mustangs to participate in all 100 sets during the 2015 season, along with Greisen and junior Savannah Niemen.
Her youth didn’t prevent Van Winden from stepping into a leadership role midway through her freshman year, and teammates say those qualities have carried over through the summer into fall camp.
“She’s always that one person that you can lean on and look to when the going gets tough,” Gruenewald said. “She’s definitely someone that we’re going to be looking for this year to step up even more.”
Nelson, who ranks seventh all-time at Cal Poly with 1,932 career assists, figures to be equally involved in Cal Poly’s attack.
The 6-foot setter was selected to play with the USA Collegiate National Team over the summer, competing with more than 300 of the top players in the country for two weeks in Indianapolis.
As a sophomore last season, Nelson ranked second in the Big West in assists (1,052), assists per set (10.73) and service aces per set (0.32). She recorded 17 double-doubles and solidified her status as one of the elite distributors in the Big West.
“I think the first-team all-conference award for her last year was kind of the first big step that she took,” Crosson said. “Being recognized by the other coaches in the league as being one of the top 12 players in the conference (was important).”
It will be another month and 11 matches before Cal Poly plays its home opener against defending conference champion Hawaii. By then, Crosson expects to have a better feel for where the Mustangs stand in the Big West landscape.
Only the four-time national champion Rainbow Warriors qualified for the NCAA Tournament last year, leaving a second-place Long Beach State team with a 25-6 overall record out of the 64-team field.
Nevertheless, Gruenewald doesn’t shy away from talking about those type of aspirations.
“I’ve been here almost four years, and that is what I came here to do,” Gruenewald said. “So, I really hope this is our year.”
Cal Poly volleyball 2016
Last year: 19-8 overall, 11-5 Big West
Top returners: Adlee Van Winden, Taylor Nelson, Taylor Gruenewald
Key losses: Nicole Kessler, Hannah Schleis
Season opener: 2 p.m. Friday vs. Rice at BYU Invitational
Home opener: Sept. 24 vs. Hawaii