Credit: Owen Roberts | Mustang News, 2023

If you follow Cal Poly Women’s Basketball on Instagram or Twitter, you’ll notice that most of their posts end with the hashtag Kaizen.

Kaizen is an ideology founded in the direct aftermath of World War II that means “continuous improvement.” Japanese businesses used the idea of Kaizen, or continuous improvement, to rebuild a country after one of its lowest points.

“We studied great organizations that have made tremendous turnarounds,” first-year head coach Shanele Stires said. “We used the word the same way Toyota used it.”

The 2021-22 season was a tumultuous one for the program, seeing the departure of longtime head coach Faith Mimnaugh and the fewest number of wins (three) in conference play since their first Division-I season in the now-defunct American West Conference. 

This year, the women’s basketball squad has already surpassed their win total from last year, even after playing the two best teams in the country in No. 1 South Carolina and No. 2 Stanford, along with UCLA, which currently sits eighth in the nation.

Their record of 5-9 doesn’t look great on paper, and part of that can be attributed to their demanding schedule. However, Stires believes that these games against high-level opponents are beneficial. 

“There is learning that happens when you challenge yourself with the caliber of opponent you play,” Stires said.

There are stories to those wins and losses, too. If the losses against the three ranked teams are removed, there are six losses with an average margin of around nine points, which is inflated by a 23-point loss to Long Beach State.

However, data like that can only go so far. It’s a nice barometer for the general public to look at and understand, but the true growth is observed behind closed doors during practice.

“The way we see [Kaizen] every day is in our skill development, our toughness and most importantly our teamwork,” Stires said. “We really pride ourselves in the way we team build.”

That toughness that Stires and the team hang their hat on was on full display for the program’s latest victory against UC Riverside. 

After a hard-fought, back-and-forth second half against the Highlanders, a buzzer-beating layup by graduate forward Oumou Toure clinched a 49-47 win.  

As conference matchups continue to play out, Stires and the Mustangs will look to have those close games turn into more wins, highlighting how they are improving as a unit and as individuals on and off the court.

“We understand that if we are going to turn Cal Poly into one of the best basketball programs in the country, it starts not only by changing minds and changing hearts, but it also goes to, if you want to be the best, you have to play the best,” Stires said.