For an instant, senior guard Kyle Toth’s friendly smile vanishes when talking about last year’s redshirt season.
But it isn’t about where Toth is now; it’s about how he got there.
It’s a Monday morning. The men’s basketball team, fresh off a pair of wins, has the day off while head coach Joe Callero is away on a recruiting trip.
Toth sits in the sports media office wearing a maroon sweater over a jersey, sweatpants and some lightly-worn sneakers. He’s at ease despite the steady din outside the office as the softball and baseball teams take their player pictures. Standing just over six feet and a lean 175 pounds, he fits comfortably in the chair and slowly swivels while maintaining a smile. He’s open to a break in his routine.
Despite his unassuming appearance, Toth has had one of the best years of his sharpshooting college career this season. Through the Mustangs’ first 10 games, he averaged 11.6 points per game, 2.4 rebounds and shot a remarkable 54.5 percent from three-point range. He is an integral cog in the scheme for the Mustangs this season, as injuries forced them into a four-out system offensively.
But it wasn’t guaranteed that he’d be playing this season.
High school: Where it all started
Toth’s basketball life is relatively prototypical for a college athlete. He played organized basketball for years while growing up in Sunnyvale, California, the heart of Silicon Valley.
Playing high school basketball for the Archbishop Mitty Monarchs gave him an experience most high school athletes don’t enjoy: sharing the court with an NBA talent. Aaron Gordon, the fourth overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft and a starting forward for the Orlando Magic, was named California’s Mr. Basketball in 2012 and 2013 as the Monarchs won Division II state championships in 2011 and 2012. Toth was a starting guard and captain on Archbishop Mitty’s title-winning team in the 2011 season.
“It was fun, really. Looking back on it I didn’t think he [Gordon] would be this successful,” Toth said. “It was a good experience, walking into the gym and knowing you’re going to win. I don’t think I’ll walk into a gym that confident again.”
Life in the armed forces
After winning the school’s first state title in basketball, Toth graduated with a secured legacy and no fear of the big stage. From there, it was on to the
“[My] dad served in the army for four years and got his college paid for,” he said. “I thought I’d go in with that same mindset.”
Toth laughs lightly about heading to West Point straight out of high school. It’s an uncommon choice for high school athletes, especially those on title-winning teams. Nonetheless, as he has in every stop during his college career, Toth produced for his team. His first season at the U.S. Military Academy Prep School saw him average 13.9 points per game before transitioning to the army team the following season.
There, again, his team was successful. Winning Patriot League All-Rookie Team honors after leading the team to its first winning season in almost 30 years, Toth averaged 8.2 points per game and shot 37.5 percent from deep.
But the army wasn’t the place for him.
“It was shellshock. My first 10 minutes there, I knew I’d be gone eventually,” he said. “I knew this was not what I wanted to do as a career.”
Going back home
Toth finished his time in the army and transferred home, enrolling in Foothill College just 15 minutes away from where he lived.
Considered one of the best community colleges in the state, it provided the perfect setting for Toth to be close to home and still play basketball.
“It was good to get the opportunity to live back home and getting out of a military lifestyle,” he said. “Getting acquainted with being a civilian again, that was interesting. Not having somewhere to be 24/7, I really enjoyed that as well as being home with my family.”
As a Foothill Owl, he continued his sharpshooting ways, averaging 15 points per game, shooting 41 percent from three-point range and leading the team by making 88 percent of his free throws. Just like his time in the army, the accolades continued; he received First Team All-Coast North honors. His efforts at Foothill caught the attention of Callero, who extended an offer to him.
How he got to Cal Poly and where he’s headed
The first year at Cal Poly was a down year for Toth. He started in four games and played in another seven and shot 41.7 percent from the three-point line. It wasn’t apparent on the court, but his mind was somewhere else for much of that year.
And that’s where we come to the pause.
“My mom had passed when I first got down here,” he said. “That’s why I academically struggled and on the court, too.”
Just as quickly as the smile vanished, it returned again.
With family being such an integral part of his life, Toth suddenly had everything put into a different perspective. He joined the army to get his college tuition paid for, then moved back home to spend time with family again while deciding on a new path before moving to San Luis Obispo to go to Cal Poly.
Everything changed with the death of his mother. He’d lived the better part of the past decade playing basketball at the highest level and focusing on the next challenges inside the classroom.
Click on Toth’s profile on the Cal Poly Athletics page and you’ll see an unusual designation for class: RSr, or Redshirt Senior. Redshirting means an athlete doesn’t play in any games for one year, and the player keeps this redshirt designation for the season directly after that year. It’s rare to see a redshirt senior designation as most athletes redshirt early in their careers to adjust to the college game. However, after the 2014-15 season — his first season as a Mustang — Toth needed time to recalibrate in the wake of his mother’s passing.
“It was a hiatus for me,” he said. “Spring break of 2015, I went to the Philippines and visited where she grew up and was really moved by that. I wasn’t ready to dive back in to the student-athlete life. Two days later, I decided to give up on basketball and figure out where I was at with everything.”
This time was odd at first. Namely, it was the first time in over a decade that Toth’s life didn’t include basketball.
“During that year, it was really rough. First year away from organized sports,” he said. “But looking back on it, it was crucial for me.”
Criticisms of college athletes can include their insatiable need to focus on sports. NFL cornerback Richard Sherman famously said that “[college athletes] are not on scholarship for school.”
This year off made Toth an anomaly of sorts: focused and passionate about the sport he plays, yes, but not to the point that everything else in his life was pushed aside.
Still, the void left in his life turned out to be too much. There was still a drive to play competitive basketball, but with that came the understanding that it wasn’t the end-all, be-all of
Unsurprisingly, Callero was hesitant at first to welcome him back.
“When I called him, he was a little sketched out at first,” Toth said. “He wasn’t sure if I wanted to come in and might quit again. But he was very accepting of it the more we talked.”
Initially, it was strange getting back into the routine of playing basketball with a different group of guys. Only senior guard Ridge Shipley and senior forward Zach Gordon remained from Toth’s last season with the team. It wasn’t simple to get back to being part of the group, but it wasn’t too hard for a man who has played for four different teams in his previous four playing seasons.
Toth and Shipley often start the game to provide experience and outside shooting and to set the tone for the Mustangs. Without arguably their most athletic player, junior forward Josh Martin, the players had to adjust their playing styles, facilitated by the pair of veterans. With Shipley running the point and Toth slashing through the defense searching for open looks, the duo make an efficient combination.
Admittedly, there isn’t much left for Toth to complete in his basketball career. He’s won a state title in high school with NBA talent, led multiple teams to winning seasons and has been given conference awards. Beyond this season, his future’s unclear.
“Not too anxious to dive into the work world,” Toth said with a laugh. “Not quite sure, just trying to take it easy. Right now, just get through school and get that four-year degree I’ve taken six years to get.”
The laughter, for the first time in the conversation, drowns out the constant, echoing commotion outside.
But it’s not about where he is now. It’s about how he got here and how that journey includes lessons for his future.