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The Cal Poly women’s basketball team was one game away from the Big Dance a year ago. However, a loss to Cal State Northridge in the Big West Conference tournament final ended its hopes of recapturing the magic of the 2012-2013 season, when the Mustangs captured the conference crown.
However, the Mustangs will have an entirely different cast than years past. They lost multiple starters from last year, including center Molly Schlemer and guard Jonae Ervin.
Schlemer finished her Cal Poly career as the fifth-leading scorer and rebounder in school history, averaging 16.9 points and 10.1 rebounds for the Mustangs last season. She is now playing in the Damen Basketball Bundesliga league in Germany.
Ervin was an all-around stud for the Mustangs. She averaged 11.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists and finished her Cal Poly career as the all-time assists leader.
Despite the loss of these key players, the Mustangs were still picked to finish third in the preseason Big West Conference media poll rankings, speaking volumes to Cal Poly’s talent has this year.
The Mustangs feature a balance of experienced upperclassmen and talented newcomers.
Returning to the court are senior guards Ariana Elegado and Kristen Ale, as well as senior forward Taryn Garza.
Elegado was Cal Poly’s leading scorer last year with 17 points per game and was selected to the preseason All-Conference team. After graduating last summer, Elegado chose to use her final year of eligibility for one last chance to make it to the Big Dance. The Mustangs will rely on her experience and leadership throughout the season.
Ale was a key reserve last year, averaging 8.2 points per game on 36 percent three-point shooting. She now moves into the starting lineup at either the shooting guard or the small forward position, depending on whether or not Elegado becomes the primary ball-handler or remains a shoot-first guard.
In the paint, the absence of Schlemer will be filled by Garza and sophomore center Hannah Gilbert. Garza is a rebounding machine, averaging 6.8 per game last season, earning her the Big West Conference’s Best Hustle Award. Gilbert, after backing up Schlemer last year, will be inserted into the starting lineup and will look to provide a major presence in the paint for the Mustangs.
“We will be banking on our defense this year, especially at the beginning,” Ale said. “We are focusing on becoming a defensive team — we’re excited to see how well we rebound and communicate.”
In addition to the returners, the Mustangs brought in twin guards Dynn and Geralynn Leaupepe. Both were highly recruited out of high school, and head coach Faith Mimnaugh said the twins have the potential to be some of the best players Cal Poly has ever had.
“We have added … a number of weapons this year, most notably upgrading our athleticism,” Mimnaugh said. “Our athleticism makes it possible to (have) a lot of different offensive and defensive schemes, which is a luxury because it gives us great versatility.”
Despite a 67-56 loss against Fresno State in the season opener, the Mustangs have a lot to look forward to. The Leaupepe twins combined for 24 points in their debut, with Dynn leading the entire team with 15.
Ultimately, Mimnaugh is very excited with the group she has this year.
“There is a lot of optimism,” Mimnaugh said. “We have a great balance of experience and youthful enthusiasm. That’s going to be exciting.”
The Mustangs travel to Loyola Marymount on Nov. 21 and have their home opener against Portland on Nov. 23. They also have another tough road trip against New Mexico State, New Mexico and Colorado State all in five days before opening conference play at home against Bakersfield in January.