This time last year, Shanele Stires was just settling into the women’s basketball head coaching job, inheriting a team that had finished 3-22 the year before.
Despite an injury-plagued season, the Mustangs rallied to a 10-18 record and made the Big West playoffs as the seventh seed.
A loss to UC Riverside ended the Mustangs’ playoff hopes in the first round, but now Stires is back for her second season with what has shaped up to be another relatively unfamiliar team.
Just four members of last year’s team are returning, with nine newcomers set to take the court for a new-look Mustangs squad. Mainstays like junior guard Annika Shah and junior guard/forward Sydney Bourland will be back, but the team will be relying on a younger group to step up and win games from the first tip-off of the season.
The Mustangs have shown a lot of promise in early action, both in a dominant 70-18 exhibition win against division three school Simpson University and a 78-61 loss to nationally ranked Washington State in their first non-conference game. The Mustangs picked up their regular season win against Idaho in a ten-point victory.
It remains to be seen how the Mustangs will fare when faced with numerous Pac-12 opponents and if that will affect their preparation for a playoff run once conference games begin. They will need to prove the projections wrong, as a preseason coach’s poll placed the team eighth in the Big West.
Five of the nine newcomers will be making their college debuts as true freshmen. With the new additions, the roster comes out to 13 players.
The Mustangs brought in two graduate transfers who can provide some experience to a very young team. Graduate transfer Ania McNicholas brings three years of basketball experience from Cornell, where she averaged 7.8 points in 68 career games. Amanda Olinger, a graduate transfer from the University of San Diego, led the team in three-point percentage during her four-year stint.
Freshman forward Mary Carter had an impressive performance in her regular season debut, scoring nine points while going three for four from beyond the arc along with seven rebounds.
Junior guards Diamond Richardson and Sidney Richards round out the transfer additions. Richards, who spent two seasons at San Jose State, played a team-high 35 minutes in her Cal Poly regular season debut.
Richards is slated to start next to the four returners. She provides a level of off-the-dribble scoring and creation to the team’s offense.
Stires also added two new coaches to the staff this offseason.
Brooke Atkinson was selected as an assistant coach, and Ta-Rel Franklin was named the Director of Operations. Atkinson most recently coached at the University of Wyoming, and Franklin came from Alderson-Broaddus University in West Virginia.
Shah is one of four returning players this year. Shah led the team last year in points with an average of 9.4 per game and has continued her success into the beginning of this season.
Shah dropped 19 points on five three-pointers in the exhibition and in the team’s win over Idaho.
Bourland is also back and set to make an impact this season. Last year, the junior led the team in minutes and contributed on both sides of the ball, averaging 6.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.
Bourland is a vocal leader for the Mustangs and can guard multiple positions on the defensive end.
Ackerman has had a strong start to the season scoring double figures against Washington State and Idaho.
Lichtie missed most of last season with a foot injury, but the forward can shoot the ball and space the floor for the Mustangs.
Challenging non-conference schedule
The Mustangs face a unique non-conference challenge this season, with multiple games scheduled for high-level Pac-12 opponents in the first few months of the season. Notable Pac-12 games include Washington State, Cal, Stanford and USC, all of which are on the road.
Four of their scheduled opponents made the NCAA tournament last year. Washington State, who handed the Mustangs a season-opening loss, is ranked number 24 in the nation.
The team will rack up travel miles to begin the year as well. The Mustangs won’t host a regular season game for their home crowd until Dec. 9, following seven straight road games to start the season.
Just two of their non-conference games will be held at home, both on Dec. 9 against Fresno State and Dec. 16 against Montana.
The Mustangs will begin conference play on Dec. 28 against CSU Northridge.