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In 1989, then-head coach Steve McFarland and the Cal Poly baseball team shocked the nation by winning the national championship in its first-ever trip to the College World Series.
But that was the Division II title.
Now, 25 years later, head coach Larry Lee is leading Cal Poly into its third Division I NCAA postseason appearance with the belief that his team has what it takes to bring home college baseball’s highest honor.
“This year is just a good group to coach,” Lee said. “They work extremely hard on the field and in the weight room. They’re blue collar. And when they lose, it hurts them, which is a good quality to have.”
The Mustangs (45-10 overall, 19-5 Big West) won their first Big West title in program history this season and are considered a perennial conference contender — a project that began two decades ago.
In 1995, the Cal Poly baseball program was promoted to Division I after facing Division II opposition for nearly 50 years. That year, the Mustangs played in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), which the team was a part of until 1996. But Cal Poly moved to the conference it now calls home — the Big West — in 1997. The Mustangs placed fourth in the standings that year, with a 15-15 conference record.
However, Cal Poly’s quest for national relevance began in 2002, when then-Cuesta College’s highly coveted head coach, Lee, was hired for Cal Poly’s head coaching position.
Lee graduated from San Luis Obispo High School in 1979 and earned his master’s degree in physical education at Cal Poly in 1985. After finishing his collegiate career hitting .304 at Pepperdine and spending more than a year in the professional baseball ranks, the Central Coast native went on to lift Cuesta to a 460-241-3 record with California Community College State Final Four on four occasions during his 16-year tenure.
“The team I took over (at Cal Poly) was decimated of players,” Lee said. “There were only a few returners that had any experience. So we gave it a three-year period to make it to a regional.”
The short-term goal of reaching a regional in three years proved to be ambitious. The Mustangs struggled in his first year, but during the next two seasons, Cal Poly boasted a combined record of 74-43-1. Such success would normally earn the club its first regional berth, but not on the West Coast, Lee said.
“Not getting that invite set our program back a few years,” Lee said. “We just had to keep working hard and doing what we thought were the right things to better the program.”
Cal Poly endured another three years without a postseason berth and dropped in the conference standings each year, but the team’s fortune reversed in 2009. The Mustangs earned its first Division I postseason bid that year, but went 0-2 in the Tempe Regional hosted by Arizona State.
The Mustangs got back on track and posted a 36-20 record last year, making their second trip back to the postseason in 2013. However, the team lost to eventual national champion UCLA and were eliminated by San Diego later in the Los Angeles Regional.
“It was definitely a great experience making it there last year,” senior third baseman Jimmy Allen said. “We got hot at the end of the season and then had some bad luck against UCLA. It fired us up to come back this year and prove ourselves again, and show that Cal Poly needs to be put on the map.”
Allen took a leadership role as one of the team’s four seniors this year and recently became the program’s all-time hits leader after he smacked two home runs in a game against Cal State Northridge on May 16. According to junior starting pitcher Matt Imhof, the Mustangs were fueled by how close they came to beating the team that went on to win the national championship.
“It was a tough one for us to swallow last year,” he said. “We thought we were the better team, and we thought we played the better game. But that’s how the ball falls. It gave us confidence, seeing how successful they were and how we stacked up against them.”
Cal Poly has lost just one series in 2014 and went 27-3 at home in the regular season. For the first time in school history, the Mustangs will host a regional in the first round of the the postseason in their own backyard.
“I can’t wait,” Allen said. “The whole city and community is going to be out here supporting us. It’s going to be awesome.”
After earning its first opportunity to host this year, Cal Poly has begun to establish itself as a household name in the collegiate baseball community, Lee said.
“We’re going in the right direction,” he said. “Now it’s just a matter of trying to be consistent on a yearly basis. It’s very important to raise your incoming and existing players’ expectation levels. You want those players to think that they’re going to participate in regionals. That’s when the program has a chance of taking off.”