The NCAA has passed legislation adding the National Invitational Volleyball Championship as a permanent season-ending event for volleyball – Triple Crown Sports brought the event back to life in 2017 and has seen the programs from Ole Miss, Iowa State, Georgia Tech and UNLV claim an NIVC title. The 2022 event will launch with selection night on Nov. 27, with the championship match slated for Dec. 12 or 13.
By Kyle Koso
As most Californians know, the tallest mountain in the state is Mount Whitney.
Rumor has it, the second-tallest is the non-conference schedule taken on by the Cal Poly volleyball team in 2022.
The Mustangs’ brain trust headed by head coach Caroline Walters did not kid around when it came to creating early challenges for the roster, a group already dominated by underclassmen in a program that had a bit of a down season in 2021, going 15-16 overall. When 2022 kicked in, Cal Poly faced off with Top 25 foes such as UCLA, Pepperdine and Washington, along with a tough Northwestern squad that is currently 12-3. Ultimately, the Mustangs went 0-7 during the grind.
But Cal Poly’s players stayed faithful, did not pelt Walters with wads of garbage every time she walked into the gym, and turned around to win five straight matches including two at the start of Big West play last weekend. The Mustangs showed early signs of flexing the tools to thrive, taking Pepperdine and Washington to five sets, and another big proving ground moment looms this weekend with Big West matches at UC Santa Barbara and Cal State Northridge.
“It was by design, although I don’t know if I fully appreciated that of the 18 people on our roster, 15 were underclassmen,” said Walters, in her third year as head coach and 15th overall in San Luis Obispo. “Sure, there’s was nothing happening in the ‘W’ column, but our ask of the girls is that they are getting better with each match, each set, ideally each point we play if we’re doing it right. We ask them to manage their expectations and narrow their focus on getting a little bit better each time out.
“I’ve been here a long time and in 2017 and 2018, we’re winning the Big West championship, going to the NCAA tournament and losing in the first or second round. I think there’s a little bit of shell-shock at that next level. Part of what I wanted to for the team is to show that to them early on and get them that experience. Our serve and pass had to elevate quickly, as we have a freshman setter (Emme Bullis) who got a baptism by fire, and she responded famously. I hope we’ll reap the rewards of some of those early losses and that we hit our groove as this part of the season plays out.”
Maintaining the spirits and keeping the right attitude through the winless start might sound daunting to outsiders, but Cal Poly refused to be distracted. It stems from a real appreciation of adversity told through the journey of two teammates, Brooklyn Burns and Maia Dvoracek, both of whom play important roles when they could just as easily not be playing at all.
Burns, a freshman from San Diego, faced a Lymphoma diagnosis in February and fought through treatment to join the team in the summer – she’s played every match in 2022, giving the team some juice when serving and playing solid defense as well. Dvoracek, a senior, was preparing for a professional career when COVID hit, and while waiting for clarity she suffered a profound knee injury that cost her all of 2021. She’s now the Mustangs leader in kills (161), digs and aces.
“It’s a group of high-character individuals who are passionate about the game and each other, and more than that we have some special people on the team that help us stay grounded,” Walters said. “With Brooklyn, volleyball pales in comparison … she’s a walking, breathing reminder that there are other things more important. That made 0-7 not seem so catastrophic as another group might see it to be.
“Maia tore everything in her knee, I mean everything, and sat out 2021. By the time we started (in 2022), it was like 1,000 days since she’d played a match … to go through all of that, to show the resilience and be grateful for each day she gets to play the game, it spreads like wildfire in the group. The humility and gratitude is there that we get to do this. We talk about the opportunities we have a lot.”
Bullis has settled in nicely at setter (9.20 assists per set), and other relative newcomers like sophomores Tommi Stockham (149 kills) and Kate Slack (42 total blocks) are holding up very well with a lot of on-court responsibility to handle. Las Vegas native Stockham had to manage her way through some early-career disruptions, signing first with USC then shifting to Indiana for a year before transferring to Cal Poly.
“We have to recruit highly-motivated players, as this school is very difficult to get into. We want to make sure they understand there’s a certain amount of grit and hard work that goes into this,” Walters said. “Kate Slack for example, was not where she needed to be and we pushed her, a lot of emphasis on the weight room. It’s been cool to see her transform into a dedicated athlete, two years of just putting her head down.
“Player development comes to mind – as a mid-major, we’re maybe not getting the top-tier kid right out of high school. We have been blessed with some key transfers, and that has to do with how we treat our girls, and I like to think that is shared with others, that we cultivate an environment that people want to be a part of.”
All the early bruises absorbed from the start of 2022 will likely spawn stories the players will tell each other now and forever, just as Walters and her staff will surely relish the little things that happen when a young roster comes of age. It may be that preseason Big West favorites Hawaii and UC Santa Barbara will stand tall, but the Mustangs know they’ve already tackled some high-altitude challenges.
“The younger players have a bigger growth capacity, and that’s what’s exciting for us as coaches,” Walters added. “You see what happens when they invest their time. You have to be understanding that they are young, and I’ll be listening to them sing Disney songs in the team room, but it’s a joy to be with this group.”