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A championship program was born at Cal Poly while most current students were just toddlers.
Nearly two decades ago, Cal Poly women’s basketball joined the Big West Conference and appointed Faith Mimnaugh as its head coach. The shift of power began a new era with a vision for the Mustangs, and the Big West title became the ultimate objective.
Now, 18 years later, Mimnaugh is leading her team into the 2014 Big West Conference Tournament, seeking to defend Cal Poly’s first-ever Big West tournament title and earn another trip to the NCAA Tournament.
“It would be amazing if we could get to the championship again, and to win it would be unbelievable,” Mimnaugh said. “Last year’s success led to a belief that it can be done. Our team now knows how to win.”
The Mustangs finished the Big West season second in the conference with a 11-5 record, which marked Cal Poly’s sixth consecutive winning season.
The team now awaits the arrival of Hawaii in a matchup set for Friday afternoon at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. Victory on Friday means a spot in the championship round, a position senior center Molly Schlemer said the team is prepared for.
“We were a No. 2 seed last year, so we are prepared for this one,” Schlemer said. “I have a really good feeling about this tournament. We’re all going to come out and play really hard because we all really, really want this.”
The Mustangs earned a spot in the big dance last year with their conference title, but were thwarted by the size of Penn State in the first round.
The team is a much faster and well-rounded heading into this year’s tournament, which leaves hope for redemption if given the opportunity again this year, Mimnaugh said.
The 30-point loss to Penn State may seem like a failure, but at the beginning of Mimnaugh’s tenure, a Big West title and a tourney berth was just a dream, she said.
The Mustangs went 31-75 in the first seven years with Mimnaugh at the helm; she didn’t see her first winning season until a decade ago.
Since the 2003-04 season, Cal Poly has boasted a record of 109-69 under Mimnaugh, and the program is continuing to grow into a perennial contender.
“People used to say, ‘Cal Poly, who’s that?”’ Mimnaugh said. “Before I got here, the team was not very good at all. But there has been a growing respect for the program. People know who we are now.”
The Mustangs have placed higher than fifth in the conference every year since 2004, and produced four consecutive Big West Players of the Year from 2010-13.
Cal Poly’s now-dominant center, Schlemer, was once the understudy of all-time leading scorer Kristina Santiago, who led the Mustangs to two Big West tournament finals, but to no avail. Santiago now plays in the professional ranks abroad.
Schlemer has become the face of the Mustangs’ organization as the forefront of the Cal Poly offense. However, the final whistle will signal the last time the 6-foot-5 senior dons the green and gold.
“It’s been an amazing ride here,” Schlemer said. “I have been really lucky to be surrounded by the people I am with here at Cal Poly.”
The process of the mentor leading the way for the protégé is often the formula for victory in college basketball, and the Mustangs have used the tactic at the guard position in recent years.
Former Big West Player of the year Rachel Clancy was the predecessor to current all-conference Big West guards junior Ariana Elegado and senior Jonae Ervin.
Ervin is Cal Poly’s all-time leader in assists, and averaged 12 points per game this season. The senior’s partner in the backcourt, 5-foot-6 Elegado, averaged 17 points a game this season serving as the catalyst of the Cal Poly offense.
The 2014 postseason will be the last run for seniors Schlemer and Ervin, while it’s still unknown whether redshirt junior Elegado will return for next season.
“If Ariana returns, she will definitely break a lot of records next year,” Ervin said. “Either way, it will be a very different team next year.”
The potential departure of the “big three” will leave a huge opportunity for the youth on Cal Poly’s roster.
Cal Poly has signed five recruits for next year’s season to bolster the depleted squad, two of which are the highly-coveted Geralynn and Geraldynn Leaupepe, twins from Camarillo, Calif.
“The Leaupepes are probably the best signings we’ve had in some time,” Mimnaugh said. “They are really, really talented and probably could’ve played in any program.”
National powerhouses such as UCONN, Baylor and Stanford maintain their position within the nation’s top 25 each year because of their past success, and Mimnaugh said Cal Poly is moving in a similar direction.
“We’re hoping one day we can get in a recruiting battle and win a battle against a powerhouse like Stanford,” she said. “The conversations are easier now. Now you can point to trophies to show them what we do. We’re heading in the right direction.”
The next step in becoming a national contender starts Friday at approximately 2:30 p.m. in Anaheim. A second consecutive Big West title not only accomplishes the team’s objective, but could lead to a Cal Poly dynasty for years to come.
“We’re ready to win the tournament again,” Ervin said. “I feel like we’re all ready. We have to be ready for whoever we’re going to play.”