Matt Lalanne | Mustang News

After seeing Hannah Gilbert practice once as a freshman at Morro Bay High School, Faith Mimnaugh, the head coach of the Cal Poly women’s basketball team, knew she wanted Gilbert to be a Mustang.

“She’s legit coach,” Mimnaugh told Cary Nerelli, Gilbert’s coach at the time. 

Now, almost eight years later, the Mustangs’ senior center has produced four of the most productive seasons in Cal Poly women’s basketball history, currently ranking seventh all-time in scoring and sixth all-time in rebounding in Cal Poly women’s basketball history.

Wednesday night Gilbert laced up her shoes one last time at Mott Athletics Center  before calling it quits on a record-breaking career. Though Gilbert will play in the Big West Tournament in one week, Wednesday was her last game in San Luis Obispo.

The varsity years

It almost seems like a foregone conclusion that Gilbert would end up where she is in her collegiate career, especially when looking at her development as a youth.

A native of Morro Bay, she started her basketball development early, attending a youth basketball program at the age of eight. The program was run by Nerelli, who had a feeling from the beginning that Gilbert would one day play for a Division I program.

Nerelli, who Gilbert still keeps in touch with, would schedule meetings with each of his players at the start of the camp to decide what skill the player was going to focus on over the course of the season. According to Nerelli, Gilbert was fun to watch grow up through the system because her brain was “like a sponge” and would “soak up everything” he told her to do on the court.

By the time Mimnaugh came to scout her in practice at Morro Bay High School, Gilbert had turned into a force down low for the Pirates. In her last three seasons at Morro Bay High School, the Pirates did not lose a league game, winning 27 in a row, earning them three straight Los Padres League titles. Gilbert also received numerous personal accolades, including being named San Luis Obispo County Player of the Year by the Tribune after her senior season.

As her ability on the court got better and better, Gilbert’s leadership ability began to blossom. According to Nerelli, Gilbert was not necessarily a vocal leader on the team when she first arrived, but she developed leadership skills from her older teammates.

“I think she took a little bit from each of the seniors that she followed as she came through her freshman, sophomore and junior classes,” Nerelli said. “Mix a little bit of that with her own leadership and as a senior, she really took the horse by the reigns.”

The decision

During her final year at Morro Bay High School, Nerelli got as much national exposure for Gilbert as he could. Gilbert’s success drew scouts from programs all around the country, including several PAC-12 schools like Oregon State and Utah. According to Nerelli, however, Gilbert told him from the very beginning that she only had one destination in mind: Cal Poly.

“I said ‘Well I’d love to send you to Cal Poly, I think that would be a great place for you, but I want you to look at these other places, please, so you can make an intelligent decision.”

Gilbert reluctantly agreed to tour other campuses. After returning from touring multiple campuses, she was more sure than ever of where she wanted to play college ball.

“She came back and said ‘Are you happy now? I’m still going to Cal Poly,’” Nerelli said. “I’m telling you, when she makes up her mind, nobody’s going to change it.”

Shortly after, Gilbert committed to Cal Poly and prepared for her career as a Mustang. Though she was a team captain and a vocal leader on her high school team, college was a different beast.

“I remember always just being, not really scared, but just kind of afraid because I was the new kid,” Gilbert said. “There’s kids who’ve done this for four years and know their way around. Eventually, you get acclimated but it definitely took some time.”

The transition

Gilbert had an unusual way of dealing with the stress of transitioning from high school to college.

“I pretty much used to be a TUMS addict,” Gilbert said. “I used to pop those suckers all the time because of anxiety.”

Today, Gilbert is clearly one of the leaders of the women’s basketball team. According to Mimnaugh, Gilbert is able to perfectly toe the fine line between constructive criticism of her teammates and still being able to be an encouraging and positive presence.

“She’s brought the kind of leadership that we need in practice everyday, holding players accountable, being an incredible encourager as well,” Mimnaugh said. “You can always fuss at people, but you have to give some support as well. So she’s done a good job, I think, of balancing the two.”

The passion to play

Though she has one of the most statistically dominant careers in Cal Poly history, Gilbert never once worried about her numbers, only winning.

“If we get the win I don’t really care what my points are,” Gilbert said. “To me, it’s more important to win, and I’m just glad to be here.”

The casual fan wouldn’t be able to tell from watching her on the court, but Gilbert has been dealing with severe achilles tendonitis for the last two seasons. According to Mimnaugh, Gilbert wasn’t able to get through some practices last season without tearing up from the pain, yet still wanted to give it her all.

“She’s a warrior,” Mimnaugh said. “She does everything she possibly can to ready herself for both practice and games.”

When Mimnaugh said everything, she means literally everything. Aside from physical therapy treatments, ultrasounds, long periods of icing and having someone knead the knots in her calves out almost every day, Gilbert also uses a walking boot aside from game days or when when she is playing basketball.

“I wear the boot every day but game day, just mentally I don’t like to walk in wearing it,” Gilbert said. “But it’s been a frustrating thing because I eat correctly, I take anti-inflammatory pills, all that type of jazz. It’s just frustrating when it doesn’t work.”

Gilbert’s toughness and relentless mentality is exactly why her coach dubbed her a warrior. Since she was named the starting center at the beginning of her sophomore season, Gilbert has only missed one game in her junior season despite all of the pain she has experienced because of her ailing achilles.

“There’s plenty of people that have to deal with injuries in their lives, and some that you wouldn’t know if they had an injury,” Mimnaugh said. “To me, that’s a warrior’s mentality. They keep it on the down low that they’re hurt. They’re ready to show up for practice. They’re not asking to have reps off. They’re not looking for any special favoritism. To me, that’s a fighter’s mentality or a warrior’s mentality that every team needs to have.”

While her unbreakable mental fortitude is something to be revered, the most impressive aspect of Gilbert’s basketball ability may be her athleticism. Gilbert is listed at 6-foot-3 and boasts an intimidating 6-foot-8 wingspan which has allowed her to match up defensively with any post player she has seen in her career.

“Her ability defensively, it might be better than any post player that I’ve had, to be honest,” Mimnaugh said. “She really can move and she’s very intelligent. It’s been a real pleasure for me to be coaching somebody that cares so much about defense.”

On the offensive end of the floor, Gilbert’s agility poses a nightmarish problem for opposing teams. According to Mimnaugh, Gilbert’s speed up the court is only comparable to Cal Poly’s all-time leading scorer Kristina Santiago.

“She’s definitely one of the most athletic players in our program,” Mimnaugh said. “Her ability to run the court puts her right next to Santiago as far as posts that I’ve coached. She gives up is a little bit of girth to some of her opponents, so if we can get her in motion that seems to suit her better than trying to pound her against people that are 50 pounds heavier than she is.”

As a freshman at Cal Poly Gilbert learned how to tailor her game to her leanness, something she originally viewed as a weakness. She learned how to overcome this challenge from another great Mustang post player, Molly Schlemer.

“We’re completely opposite; she can knock you over,” Gilbert said. “Me being a skinnier post makes me more fast than almost anybody else. For her, she was taller and bigger than everybody else, so she used that to her advantage. That’s probably the biggest thing she taught me, is take something that you think is your weakness and make it your strength.”

By the time Schlemer graduated, she left some big shoes for Gilbert, then a sophomore, to fill. Ironically, by the time Schlemer graduated began playing professional basketball in Europe, she ranked sixth all-time in scoring and fifth all time in rebounding in program history, just one spot ahead of Gilbert in both categories.

With everything that she has accomplished on the court, Gilbert would absolutely have a legitimate chance to play professionally, according to Mimnaugh.

“She definitely has the potential to do that,” Mimnaugh said. “Not sure that she’s going to take any offers, but she definitely has the talent.”

It would seem strange that a player who appears to have no limit to her potential would walk away from the sport that she has dedicated her entire life to, but the pain has finally caught up with Gilbert. Through the years of constant agony, Gilbert has decided her body cannot physically withstand the physically grueling demands of professional basketball.

“As of right now, with my body, I am not interested in playing overseas,” Gilbert said. “I am thankful for what basketball has given me, but it has become a job now and I don’t really have the love for it like I used to.”

With her graduation coming at the end of spring, Gilbert has begun to look toward her life after college and after basketball. Having majored in event planning and management in her time at Cal Poly, she has tentatively lined up an internship in San Diego with Hornblower Cruises and Events, a company that provides high-end cruise ships for private events such as weddings.

According to Gilbert, she has picked up some tips from Mimnaugh that will help her beyond the court.

“She’s kind of shown me what battles to pick, patience, thinking about different ways people react and work,” Gilbert said. “She changes the perspective on how you think, which is really a good communication skill I’ve picked up from her.”

Both Mimnaugh and Nerelli believe that Gilbert’s positive mindset and work-ethic will lead her to success in any industry she chooses, but especially in event planning. According to Nerelli, a father of two, any parent would be lucky to have Gilbert for a daughter.

“From my standpoint, I have two daughters, and I think she is the type of person that any father would love to have as a daughter,” Nerelli said. “That, I think, speaks for itself.”

While she is planning for her future, Gilbert is still trying to enjoy every moment with her teammates that she has left. According to Gilbert, the one thing she will miss more than anything will be the relationships she has formed with the group of girls that call her “mom.”

“As excited as I am for the next chapter, I’m gonna miss the girls,” Gilbert said. “That’s the thing I will remember, camaraderie. It’s bittersweet.”

Gilbert summed up her basketball career as a “learning experience,” and, despite her career of success, that she is just grateful to have had the opportunity to come to Cal Poly.

“I was just thankful to be given the opportunity to come to Cal Poly for a free scholarship,” Gilbert said. “I was just kind of in awe that I was selected to be able to do this.”

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