The Cal Poly women’s basketball team begins practice at 6:30 a.m., but that’s only when the whole team arrives.
Typically, one player – senior forward Jessica Eggleston – is already in Mott Gym a half-hour beforehand, shooting jump shots to warm up before practice starts.
“She’s there at 6 every morning getting extra shots in,” Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh said Monday. “There’s not a lot of college students that have that kind of dedication to their game. It’s paying off for her and it’s paying off for our team.”
Indeed, Eggleston has led the charge of the Mustangs’ eight-game winning streak, the team’s longest since the 1981-82 season. She has done so to the tune of two straight double-doubles to become the first player from any school since 1998 to win back-to-back Big West Conference Player of the Week awards.
Eggleston leads Cal Poly (13-12, 8-4 Big West) in points (13.9) and rebounds (8.0) per game, assists (70) and is second in both steals (50) and blocked shots (10).
When asked at Monday’s weekly athletics department press conference if there was anything Eggleston could not do on the basketball court, Mimnaugh said: “There are a few things she can’t do, but we won’t tell the opposition that. She’s just playing remarkable basketball. To see her evolution in the game and her confidence, it’s her hard work paying off.”
As the team’s elected captain, Eggleston said arriving early is just one aspect of leadership. The majority of her early workouts are dedicated the perimeter shooting.
“As leaders and captains, we think it’s important to set the example and not just talk about it,” Eggleston said Tuesday. “I pretty much just shoot (before practice) – that’s why I have a 3-point shot.”
Eggleston said the team’s surge into a tie for second place in the Big West standings has had much to do with several players returning from early-season injuries. The team got off to a 5-12 start that included a seven-game losing streak, but has since rocketed into a position in which it can finish no lower than fourth.
“It’s been great,” Eggleston said of the eight-game winning streak. “We weren’t doing so well at the beginning. Everyone’s been working really hard since then. We’ve had people come back from injuries, everyone’s playing well with each other. I’d attribute it to that. We have more people who can fill in more areas. They’re doing it well. Everyone’s playing their role.”
Securing one of the top four seeds for the Big West Tournament, which runs from March 7 to 10 at the Anaheim Convention Center, is crucial because it means the Mustangs do not have to play in the first round, receiving an automatic trip to the quarterfinals.
“It’s huge,” Mimnaugh said of earning the first-round bye. “We definitely have second place as our goal. We’re just playing great basketball.”
Eggleston said the team’s goal is to win the Big West Tournament.
“To win a championship,” she said. “As a senior, my goal is to go out big.”
The Mustangs can take a big step toward that end when they visit Cal State Northridge at 7 p.m. Thursday and Pacific at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“Northridge is a team that likes to fast break and they rebound pretty well,” Eggleston said. “They have a couple shooters, so it’s just making sure we contain them and limit their fast-break opportunities. Pacific, they have two people who can shoot the lights out. It’s just holding them and not letting anyone go off on us. We’re going to play our usual zone (defense). Hopefully that will slow them down.”
The Mustangs have slowed down conference opponents all season, a trend that peaked with a 64-58 home win over first-place UC Riverside last Thursday.
In the Big West preseason polls, coaches predicted Cal Poly would finish seventh among eight teams. Media members said fifth.
“To be honest, I was surprised that the conference coaches placed us so low in the preseason,” Mimnaugh said. “I don’t think that they researched either our signings or things that were happening with other clubs in the conference. It’s definitely motivation for us. We definitely felt we were better than that. Once we were healthy, we’re a pretty good squad.”
Suddenly, the thought of reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since moving to the Division I level for the 1994-95 season is a viable thought.
“Wouldn’t that be fun?” Mimnaugh said. “We’re just going to worry about Thursday. We’re going to set ourselves up for the possibility of playing in the NCAA Tournament.”