Cal State Bakersfield was not supposed to still be playing volleyball this week.
The Roadrunners are not expected to still be playing after Friday.
That is fine with Sydney Haynes.
Entering the Western Athletic Conference tournament with a sub-.500 record, the Roadrunners reeled off three victories in their own Icardo Center — dropping a total of just one set — to win the WAC title and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
For their reward, the Roadrunners (16-14) play Friday at top-ranked Stanford (29-1).
“We are all so excited,” said Haynes, an Evergreen High School graduate. “To be playing the No. 1 team in the country is really intimidating, but I think we’re just going to go out and play and have fun. Nobody’s expecting much, but we’re going to go and play our hearts out and go for it. We feel honored to have made it this far, and to be getting the chance to play Stanford is amazing. We’re very proud. We’re going into the bracket as kind of one of those teams that got lucky, almost, but we didn’t get lucky. We worked for it. We’re nervous, but we’re excited for the chance.”
Playing a new game
Haynes, a 6-foot-2 redshirt freshman middle blocker, is excited to be playing NCAA Division I volleyball at all after first taking up the sport as a freshman at Evergreen. She played basketball before, but some time off because of injury led to trying volleyball and she changed sports.
While she quickly became a Division-I caliber player, Haynes said her relative lack of experience made it beneficial to redshirt her first season at Bakersfield. She suffered a dislocated finger in preseason practice as a freshman and by the time she was able to return, it was decided that redshirting her would be the best move.
“Going from high school to a Division I school is a huge change,” Haynes said. “It helped me to figure out what college is like and what being a college athlete really meant. I was glad. Being away from home and trying to play volleyball was hard, but now I’ve figured it out and now I get to focus on volleyball this year. I hadn’t played volleyball for very long before that, so it was good to get a year under my belt and kind of experience it first.”
That redshirt season and playing during the sand volleyball season put Haynes in position to be an impact player this year.
Second on the team with 58 blocks and a .206 hitting percentage and fourth on the team with 174 kills and 19 service aces, Haynes was named to the WAC All-Freshman team. She was not expecting that announcement at the banquet the night before the conference tournament began.
“I was not planning on getting my name called at all,” Haynes said. “I was like, ‘Oh, those are some really good players who are getting called,’ then they said my name and I was like, ‘Oh. Wow.’ “
Volleyball — playing the game and being part of a a team — helped with the transition from high school to college, Haynes said, and it also shows that not having much team success in high school is not a barrier to major college dreams.
“It shows that it doesn’t matter — even if your high school does struggle, you can still get to where you want to go if you put in the hard work,” Haynes said. “That’s the biggest thing for me.”
Roadrunning to NCAAs
The Roadrunners began the season 3-9, including four-set September losses to NCAA Tournament teams Nebraska, Oregon State, Long Beach State and Dayton. CSUB is 12-5 since, winning 10 of their last 13 matches and their last five.
Haynes said the team’s confidence has grown throughout the season.
“From the beginning of the year, it’s been night and day,” Haynes said. “We really struggled at the beginning of the season. We lost some really important players from last season, and I think most of us were kind of expecting this year to be a really rough year. None of us expected to get this far, but these last few weeks, we’ve been just really playing well together as a team. Everyone’s been doing her job, and it’s just been working out perfectly. We peaked at the exact right time. Winning the WAC tournament was totally unexpected. That was huge. We’ve really bonded as a team.”
That confidence began despite the loss to national power Nebraska at a Dayton, Ohio, tournament.
“I think that’s the point when we all kind of looked at each other and we were like, ‘OK, we can do this. We can do big things,’ ” Haynes said. “I think that said a lot to us. It kind of opened our eyes to show us that we can do this.”
After a 24-5 regular season including a 12-2 mark in WAC play, top seed Missouri-Kansas City was the overwhelming favorite in the conference tournament. The Roadrunners were not regarded as much of a potential threat, Haynes said, even though they were the No. 3 seed after a 9-5 WAC regular season and hosting the tournament. CSUB beat Texas-Pan American, New Mexico State — the Roadrunners lost both regular season meetings against the No. 2 seed Aggies — and Seattle University to claim the championship after Seattle U. shocked UMKC in the semifinals.
Now CSUB looks to make the most of their NCAA Tournament experience with a bus trip to the Bay Area.
The CSUB-Stanford winner will face the winner between Michigan State (18-13) and Loyola Marymount (23-7) on Saturday, with that winner advancing to a Dec. 12-13 regional in Ames, Iowa. The Final Four is Dec. 18 and 20 at Oklahoma City.
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