Given the magnitude of deciding where her next step in life would be, it was a surprisingly easy one for Torrey Van Winden.
She had never planned on attaining a master’s degree, let alone enrolling in a different university to get one. All along, from her journey to UCLA for a year and then to Cal Poly for the next four, Van Winden had envisioned competing, picking up a bachelor’s degree, and then going pro, either in volleyball or the corporate world or both.
Then, of course, came, Covid-19. Van Winden’s first season back on the beach, after concussions kept her out of 2019 and all but one match of the 2020 indoor season, was cut short just nine matches in. When the NCAA granted spring athletes an extra year of eligibility, it brought a mix of thrill and reservation.
“I never, ever thought I’d go to grad school,” said the 6-foot-3 product of Napa, California, who was named the 2018 Big West indoors Player of the Year as a junior.
Yet here she was, with one year of eligibility remaining, and a confluence of coincidences that continued to point in the same direction: Tallahassee, Fla.
When Van Winden searched for the top Sports Management master’s programs, the first result was Florida State which is, indeed, the No. 1 program in the nation for exactly that.
“I was like ‘What a coincidence!’ ” Van Winden said, laughing. “ ‘They have a great beach volleyball program!’ ”
When she met with her Cal Poly coach, Todd Rogers, he had already prepared a list of schools that would be the best fits for her, as well as the other seniors at Poly. Florida State was his top choice for Van Winden.
“He said ‘I’d be happy to make the call for you. Me and (Florida State coach) Brooke (Niles) are really great friends, I’d love for you to stay but I obviously want what’s best for you and your education,’ ” Van Winden recalled.
She put her name on the transfer portal, politely requested that no coaches contact her, and reached out to Niles.
Two weeks later, it was confirmed: Van Winden, whose last name is inextricably linked with Cal Poly, was a Florida State Seminole.
“Obviously I respected her game a lot but you never know with somebody that good: Maybe they could have an ego or not be the most team player,” Niles said. “You really have no idea. I knew on my first conversation with her that she’s a hard worker, down to earth, just wants to be better. I knew once I talked to her that we gotta get this girl. She’d be so good for our culture and team and obviously she puts us unto a contender status, and with all the pieces coming back we’re just as good as anybody on any given day.”
Even without Van Winden, Florida State was very much a contender. It was 12-1, with wins over Stetson, TCU, Grand Canyon, two sweeps of South Carolina, and a 4-1 victory over Cal Poly. The only loss on the ledger came 3-2 to USC. With the addition of Van Winden as well as Michigan transfer Sydney Wetterstrom, along with returning virtually the entire starting lineup save for Alice Zeimann, Florida State will be more than just a contender.
“It’s a new journey and it’s a big step for me because of my head,” Van Winden said. “I think it’s what I needed. I needed a shift in scenery and to be committed and happy about pursuing a masters degree that I’m passionate about.”
Her head, which has been subject to nearly half a dozen concussions in as many years, was one of the first topics discussed with Niles.
At Poly, Van Winden had been able to assemble a team around her to treat her specifically. Leaving such an environment gave Van Winden pause, though Florida State could be one of the best places for her that isn’t named Cal Poly. The Seminoles essentially have their own neurologist, and they have taken to using technology, including a wearable called Whoop, to track athletes’ recovery, including resting heart rate and heart rate variability, both of which are metrics that will be valuable for Van Winden.
“She’s super mature and aware and it’s been a process that she’s had to find the right doctors and people to tell her what’s going on with her,” Niles said. “She’s going to be able to get a lot of great treatment here and really good care.”
Playing Poly will, of course, be difficult. Her teammate, Emily Sonny, penned a letter to Van Winden, in garnet and gold (Florida State’s colors) ink, expressing how strange it will be to be on the other side of the net.
“That’s something that’s going to be really hard for me,” said Van Winden, whose sister, Adlee, recently graduated from Poly. “It’s something I continued coming back to during the decision process and the reality is that I will forever be a Cal Poly alumni, I’ll forever be a Mustang at heart, I’ll never root against my old teammates or Cal Poly as an institution.”
But she is a Seminole now, something she never thought she’d say, getting her master’s degree, something she never thought she’d do.
“It’s intimidating but Florida State has really great resources and they’re so committed to making sure I’m healthy enough to play,” she said. “I’m committed to it, so we’ll be able to find the people who are right for me and put them in my corner and maybe win a national championship. Can I say that?”