When Torrey Van Winden walked off Hermosa Beach on Saturday with a bronze medal in the USA Volleyball Collegiate Beach Championships, it capped quite a 2017-18 school year for the Cal Poly indoor and beach standout.
In the gym, she led Cal Poly to its best season in more than two decades as the Mustangs went 16-0 in the Big West and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007. And wouldn’t you know it, but after Cal Poly beat Denver in the first round, it lost to UCLA.
Which happened to be Van Winden’s former school.
Van Winden was a first-team All-Pac-12 opposite for UCLA as a freshman in 2016. On the beach in 2017, the 6-foot-3 product of Napa, Calif., was a key cog on the Bruins team that made it to the NCAA Championship.
And then she transferred to Cal Poly.
“It’s the best decision that I ever made,” Van Winden said. “I’m so much happier as a person, and a lot of the time the volleyball community can get sucked into what’s best for volleyball, but they forget what’s best for the individual. I’m just really, really happy, I’m evolving just as much as a player as I would have at UCLA, and I’m evolving 10 times more than I would have as a person. I’m really happy.”
Cal Poly is where her sister, Adlee, was already on the volleyball team, her 6-9 father, Jim, was a basketball player, and her mother was a standout volleyball player. The former Kelly Strand, who, along with her twin sister, Lisa Strand Ma’a (whose son, Micah, is a star setter for the UCLA men), was also an outstanding pro beach player.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, she just wanted to be with her sister,’ which is a part of it, and it’s amazing that I’m with my sister, but she really had no influence,” Torrey said. “I decided that I wanted to play dual sports, still be able to play indoor, and I wanted to play beach.
“At UCLA I wasn’t getting the opportunity to be as focused on beach as I wanted to be. I was being pulled back to the indoor side of things. Beach is my end goal, so I wanted to find a university that respected my indoor season as well as my goals and future beach career.”
(It has to be noted that when UCLA won the NCAA title May 6, four of its 10 beach-team players were on UCLA’s indoors team).
Van Winden said indoors coach Sam Crosson and beach coach Todd Rogers work well together. Crosson also serves as Rogers’ beach assistant.
“A lot of these universities are butting heads with their athletes doing both, and (Rogers and Crosson) are all for it. They’re just ‘Whatever is best for the athlete,’ and obviously you can’t go wrong. Their academics and their location are just absolutely stunning, so I love it.”
And Cal Poly was always in the the forefront.
“I grew up going to Cal Poly,” Van Winden said. “So I knew about the university, I already loved it, but it was just the best fit for my major and I did want to stay in California. So it really came down to the programs that allowed people to do both. I wasn’t released to the Pac-12, so I was a little handcuffed there, but I am just so happy.”
Adlee recalled that the transfer decision started out as a joke.
“We had talked a lot about her future and her happiness. I absolutely love it, my friends and all the coaching,” Adlee said. “She would talk to me, and I would say, ‘Well, I love Cal Poly, you’re always welcome here, everyone loves you here.’
“Once she started to become unhappy, I started to hint, but it was more of a joke at first. But then things got very serious when she was looking to transfer, and she was looking for more of a home, and I think Cal Poly filled that for her.”
The arrival of Torrey was no small thing for both volleyball programs at the San Luis Obispo school. Indoors, she averaged 4.83 kills per set, second highest in program history and sixth in the NCAA. She had 488 kills and hit .343, while the 6-1 Adlee, who will be a senior, was second on the team with 336. Torrey was second on the team in blocks with 59, five solo, and added 23 aces for a team that went 27-3.
“At Cal Poly, it was a major shift, because everyone was just so grateful that I was there,” Torrey said. “Everyone knows their roles, accepts their roles, and is supportive as a staff and as a team. I was so grateful that they were really, really receptive to accomplish that this season. Everyone was entirely on board that entire season, we grinded out butts off, and obviously we didn’t end on the finish that we wanted, but it was a great season.”
Accordingly, both Van Windens got AVCA All-American honorable mentions and Torrey was a VolleyballMag.com honorable mention.
Then on the beach, Cal Poly had its best year ever, improving from 15-23 in 2017 to 27-7 in 2018. The Mustangs finished a program-best fourth in the final AVCA Beach Poll prior to NCAA selection. They were not, however, invited to the NCAA beach field of eight.
That didn’t sit well with Van Winden.
“I think that our end-of-the-season loss against Long Beach kind of solidified that we weren’t going to go. I mean there’s that last little glimmer of hope, but we did have a really great season and we were just really bummed about not going. I was more bummed that neither Cal Poly nor Long Beach was able to go. Long Beach deserved a spot in that tournament as well.,” Van Winden said.
“The game is still evolving, and the collegiate game is still very raw. So I think that there are definitely some mistakes in whoever decided that just based off of records and rankings. I think that in the future that has to change or it can’t be called a national championship. It needs to be called an invitational tournament from the east and the west because it came down to them wanting to have the east and the west both represented.
“But it’s the NCAA, the best of the best, it’s not everyone gets a chance. We were pretty bummed about that, to be quite honest, and I know that’s pretty blunt, but I think people have to start recognizing that, and respecting that, because they’re taking opportunities away from athletes who deserve them.
Van Winden and Canadian teammate Tiadora Miric went 19-8 this season as the No. 1 pair. Adlee and Taylor Nelson and went 25-3 at No. 3.
Rogers, who was on the NCAA beach selection committee, said Torrey Van Winden makes her teammates better.
“She’s obviously a great player,” Rogers said. “That kind of goes without saying.”
But Rogers said her intensity on the court, both in practice and matches, sets the tone.
“I think it was an introduction to the next level of sports for a lot of her teammates at SLO, which can be difficult, and has been difficult at times, but I think that’s an excellent thing,” Rogers said. “Because coming from the coach is one thing, but when it comes from a player it’s another thing, and not everyone has that intensity. But it’s what’s needed if you want to be successful, in my opinion.”
Van Winden and Miric won the Big West pairs title this year. But since Miric is Canadian, Van Winden played the USA Volleyball Collegiate Beach with Cal Poly sophomore teammate Emily Sonny, who is also from California.
“Emily and I had never played together until Thursday,” Van Winden said. “We didn’t get to train together at all, so we were just super happy … Emily and I are both blockers, so we split block. Neither of us have ever played defense in our lives, let alone at the collegiate level.”
They won both their pool-play matches on Thursday and won three playoff matches before losing to LSU’s Claire Coppola and Kristen Nuss in the final.
Now Torrey and Adlee will be back together for one more school year, which suits Kelly Van Winden just fine. She said she’s happy to drive to just one school to see her daughters play.
Torrey’s indoor ambitions are strong, but her main focus is on the sand.
“I don’t want to get my expectations too high for myself, but I just have this crazy passion for beach volleyball that I don’t have on the indoor side of things, and I don’t think that’s anything to be ashamed of,” she admitted.
“It’s just what I prefer. My end goal for collegiate would be to go to Gulf Shores (and the NCAA tournament), medal there, and then for my professional career, hopefully to get jump-started on the AVP.
“I’m in the pipeline for USA Volleyball youth and hope to get picked up by somebody for a partner. I don’t really know, I don’t have any set plans yet, but I guess the end goal would be the Olympics. It’s out of my reach as of right now, but who knows?”