Tough. Rugged. Physical. Those were the words that newly-hired Cal Poly women’s basketball head coach, Shanele Stires, used to describe her playing style as a standout athlete at Kansas State.
“Teams that I coach usually play that way,” Stires said after being announced as the head coach on April 14, after Faith Mimnaugh retired after 25 years at the helm of the program.
Stires enters the program at a time when it is searching for a turnaround. In 2021, the team went 3-22 and finished last in the Big West.
Stires, a self-described “grind-it-out” coach, is planning on bringing that mentality to help the Mustangs turn it around in the coming years.
“At [Cal State East Bay], we were eighth in the country in rebounding and our starting center was 5-6,” Stires said of her last coaching stop. “We’re gonna be scrappy, we’re gonna be tough and we are going to get after it. It’s all about how big your heart is and how bad you want it. I’m living proof of that.”
Before joining the coaching ranks, Stires had a successful college and professional basketball career. She was an all-time player at Kansas State, where she scored 1,344 points and grabbed 701 rebounds in her career along with First-Team All-Big Eight honors and runner-up as conference player of the year.
Throughout Stires’ coaching tenure at Cal State East Bay, 11 student-athletes earned All-Conference honors and one player, Shomari Harris, was named the California Collegiate Athletics Association Player of the Year in 2017.
For a mid-major program like Cal Poly, player development is crucial and Stires has shown that she has the skills needed to help with that. Her unique basketball journey will aid her in developing camaraderie within the program, according to Stires.
“I’ve had a really interesting career that’s had a lot of different twists and turns,” Stires said. “I’ve been the best player on my team; I’ve been the worst player on my team. I think I’ve been the worst coach in the room on a coaching staff; I’ve been the best assistant coach in the room on the coaching staff. There’s probably no situation that you’re going through as a student athlete that I haven’t been in.”
Throughout Stires’ resume is a history of success with programs she has been involved with. Her Cal State East Bay team compiled a 94-53 record over the last six seasons. Before East Bay, she helped the University of San Francisco (USF) win the West Coast Conference and reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in 19 years. At USF, she served as associate head coach, defensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator.
“Most programs don’t have a pathway to create a really high level of performance as their players work together synergistically,” Stires said. “We’re going to overachieve. So even if the talent isn’t exactly where we want it to be, we’re going to overachieve because we’re going to play together better than other teams.”
To have that synergy, according to Stires, the team must run a scheme tailored to the natural strengths and intuitions of the players. Stires says that she hasn’t established how they want to play on the offensive end, but it is clear that it’s going to be based on her assessment of the team’s skillset.
“It’s not going to be about what I want to do,” Stires said. “It’s going to be about the skillset of our players, and then trying to put each player in situations that allow them to be as successful as they can be within a framework that organizes us all to be on the same page.”
On the defensive end, Stires said the team would apply ball pressure while also containing drives to keep their defense out of rotation.
“We want to do a really good job of playing with gap integrity,” Stires said. “We want to jump to the ball and flood the lane. We want to make sure we can test and contain shooters and drivers.”
Along with having a suitable scheme, the other component to improving as a team comes mentally. Changing their expectations and mindset coming into next year will be crucial for the Mustangs, according to Stires.
“I think when you’re coming off of the kind of season that our players just came off of, you’ve got to remind them that they’re probably capable of more than they think they are,” Stires said.
The Mustangs have some key members of the team returning, including seniors Maddie Vick and Maddie Willett, who will be staying at Cal Poly for their postgraduate studies. Vick and Willett were top two in minutes played last season.
With the pair returning along with gradual improvement from others, the team will look to take a step up next season.
“If we were coming into a situation where the culture wasn’t as hard working as this one it would be that much more difficult,” Stires said. “But I feel like there’s such a good group of young ladies that we’re going to be able to galvanize them and get them to pull in the same direction.”
Throughout Coach Stires’ career as a coach and player, her grit and determination are apparent everywhere she’s been, and she’s bringing that same approach to the Cal Poly women’s basketball program for years to come.
“They’re fighters,” Stires said of her new squad. “I think they want to win and I think it’s my job to show them how that is going to occur.”