Coming off the most successful season in program history, the Cal Poly softball team has set the bar high. Higher still are the expectations the team has for itself.
The season begins at 3:30 p.m. against No. 2 Texas A&M, as the Mustangs travel to Palm Springs to take part in the Cathedral City Kickoff tournament. In their second game, they’ll take on San Diego State at 6 p.m. Before the weekend is over, Cal Poly will also face No. 20 Oregon, New Mexico State, and last year’s national runner-up, No. 6 Tennessee.
Cal Poly captured its first Big West Conference title and made its first Division I postseason appearance a season ago. The Mustangs’ confidence reflects a been-there, done-that attitude.
“We know what kind of team we are, and who we want to be, and where we want to be in May,” said junior shortstop Melissa Pura. “That championship gives us a kind of feel-good, we-can-do-this confidence.”
However, the Mustangs, predicted to repeat their title by Big West coaches, are taking nothing for granted. Every player repeatedly issues a similar phrase, emphasizing they have to go out and play their game no matter the opponent.
They’ll need such an attitude, as 26 of their 48 games this season will be against teams that made the NCAA Tournament last year.
“The stronger the schedule, the better off we are,” said Cal Poly head coach Jenny Condon. “It only prepares us better for what we want to accomplish.”
Heading that endeavor will be Pura, who is coming off one of the best offensive seasons in Cal Poly history, in which she batted .364 with 10 home runs, 34 runs and 48 RBIs on her way to being named to the All-Big West First Team. The campaign led to her being named as one of the top 50 players to watch for National Player of the Year honors going into this season.
She is joined by four other All-Big West selections on a team that only lost two starters from last year’s lineup. The other returning player named to the first team is senior Sarah Iwata.
Iwata, who batted .329 with seven home runs, 32 runs and 37 RBIs last season, should combine with Pura to form a fearsome offensive duo.
The second team all-conference selections were senior pitcher Robyn Kontra, who went 12-7 with a 2.28 ERA and 74 strikeouts, sophomore first baseman Krysten Cary, who hit .286 with five home runs, 32 runs and 31 RBIs and junior pitcher Jenna Maiden.
These players should provide a nucleus that compensates for losing conference player of the year Lisa Modglin and three-time All-Big West selection Jackie Gehrke-Jones.
Condon insists they are ready for life without the departed players.
“We are very deep, which makes us versatile,” she said. “We can plug in anybody and know we’re not going to miss a beat.”
Leadership shouldn’t be a problem, either.
“Our junior and senior class leaders have really stepped up in terms of showing the young players how we do things around here,” Condon said.
Iwata said she has taken more of a vocal role this year with the freshmen to ease their adjustment to life in college, both on and off the field.
Besides a potent lineup, the Mustangs have a deep pitching staff that boasts four top-of-the-rotation starters. Kontra, who had 11 complete games and three shutouts last year, is joined by Maiden, who went 13-4 with a 2.40 ERA and 60 strikeouts, sophomore Helen Peña, who went 5-4 with a 1.75 ERA and 48 strikeouts and freshman Anna Cahn.
Peña, who was third in the conference in ERA, describes the situation as “healthy competition” and says the split between lefthanders and righthanders, combined with their different styles, means each pitcher brings something unique to the circle.
“We are all capable of dominating a game,” Peña said. “But it’s comforting having someone behind you who can come in and pick you up. And I’m confident I can come in and get the job done when I’m called upon.”
The pitching is boosted by a stout defense that came within points of setting the conference record for fielding percentage.
“We’re excited about our entire infield returning,” Condon said. “They are all solid and we know what we’re getting.”
Joining Pura and Cary in the infield at second and third base, respectively, are juniors Stephanie Tam and Cristen Lee. Tam and Lee combined for only 10 errors in 220 chances last year. Freshman Krista Haux will be available to spell Cary at first, as well as provide a lefthanded bat off the bench.
In the outfield, Cal Poly has four or five players that could contribute on a daily basis. Junior Jessica Rogers will replace Modglin in center field after two years of frequent use as a substitute. Iwata and Maiden will be in the lineup, either in a corner outfield spot or as the designated player. Other players vying for time are sophomore Cristina Box and freshmen outfielders Brandi Gutierrez and Stephanie Stroud.
The last spot in the lineup at catcher is still up for grabs and will be filled either by sophomore Sara Kryza or freshman Stephanie Correia.
Returning players are motivated by the way last season ended, when they were knocked out of the NCAA Tournament with losses to BYU and Southern Utah.
“There is still a bitter feeling for us from regionals,” Maiden said.
The Mustangs’ first home action begins with the Mustang Classic, which they open against Cal at 4:30 p.m. Feb. 22.