Growing up in the shadow of Cal Poly-great Kristina Santiago, Molly Schlemer has always played with a chip on her shoulder.
Santiago, the Mustangs’ all-time leader in points and rebounds, was the poster child for success in her four years with the Cal Poly women’s basketball team. But having graduated last year and now playing professionally in Bulgaria, Santiago’s departure helped welcome a new dominant force to the court this year.
Enter Schlemer: the 6-foot-5 junior center who today towers over opponents and dominates with her strength on the hardwood for Cal Poly.
But, that wasn’t always the case.
“My favorite thing about basketball is about proving people wrong,” Schlemer said. “And there’s been a lot of people in my past who when I signed (with Cal Poly) were like, ‘Oh, she’s not really a D-I type of player.’”
Schlemer has had to prove those people wrong ever since she first picked up a basketball. Then she had to prove she belonged by following in the footsteps of one of the best players to come out of the Central Coast — Santiago.
Both were born and raised in nearby Santa Maria, Calif. Both attended the same schools and have played on the same teams since their elementary days. Both have played basketball locally since they were kids, but only one has played the sport at an elite level since the beginning.
Santiago was a standout at Righetti High School, while Schlemer was just a pupil there. Santiago earned MVP honors in each of her last three seasons with the Warriors, while Schlemer was just fighting for a starting spot.
But Schlemer, now in her first collegiate season without Santiago starting ahead of her, said she is ready to shed the doubters that have plagued her for years once and for all.
“Seven years ago, if I told you I was going to play D-I basketball, no one would have believed me,” Schlemer said. “That’s when I realized that I wanted to prove people wrong and that’s what I’ve been doing my whole career now.”
Schlemer was always tall for her age growing up. But in junior high, as she shot up at an even more fleeting pace than before, Schlemer’s legs began to grow at an angle rather than straight up. In seventh grade, this condition, commonly referred to as knock-knee, required her to have surgery on both her knees to straighten out her legs and regulate the growth process.
Following the surgery, Schlemer found soccer, her best sport at the time, to be unplayable because of the staples placed in her knees.
She found that her only other sport, basketball, was still available to her, though, and tried out for her seventh grade team just two weeks after her surgery.
She didn’t make it.
Come eighth grade Schlemer tried out again, this time making the squad. But, she didn’t find success on the floor that year either as she rode the bench almost the entire season, she said.
Her mom, Lizabeth Schlemer, an associate professor in the industrial and manufacturing engineering department at Cal Poly, said the early adversity helped her daughter grow as a basketball player.
“It builds more character when you don’t play than when you do,” Lizabeth said.
But that’s not the only adversity she faced in middle school. Her mom fought a bout with breast cancer throughout her daughter’s eighth grade year and required surgery right in the middle of basketball season. But Molly played on using the sport as therapy, according to her mother.
“It was really good to have something for her to work toward,” Lizabeth Schlemer said. “I think it was a good distraction for her and to sort of keep things going while our family was dealing with something else kept her grounded.”
After what her family went through that year, it’s no surprise Schlemer lists her parents, especially her mom, as her role models. But on the court, Santiago proved to be a bit of inspiration as well. Her decision to come to Cal Poly even helped Schlemer make her choice when deciding where to play Division I basketball.
“Playing behind (Santiago) was really good,” Schlemer said. “Watching her develop, especially from such a young age, was good.”
For all the similarities, Schlemer and Santiago play opposite styles of basketball. Santiago was a dual threat with her potent outside shooting, as well as her ability to post up underneath the basket. Schlemer, meanwhile, mainly camps out in the post waiting for her teammates to feed her the rock. But when they do, she’s nearly lights out.
And now in her junior campaign, Schlemer has truly emerged to help fill that void left by Santiago on offense.
She’s shooting a Big West-leading 63 percent from the floor in conference games and is the Mustangs’ leading scorer averaging more than 12 points per contest this season. During Big West play alone, Schlemer is averaging more than 16.3 points and seven boards a game entering tomorrow night’s matchup at conference-leading Pacific.
“We needed an inside scorer and she’s really stepped up to the plate,” head coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “Santiago could do everything for us. She could hit a jumper from outside, and Molly can too, but we don’t really need her to do that. We need her to get her butt down on the block, and she’s quite happy to do that for us.”
Following a 21-point effort to lead the Mustangs in their season opener against Oklahoma State, Schlemer struggled a bit through nonconference play before erupting for a career-high 28 points against Pacific in a triple-overtime thriller last month.
Entering this year, she had never averaged more than 3.5 points per game in a single season, but now she finally can exhale and prove to those who didn’t believe in her that she belongs in a Division I uniform.
“I don’t know exactly what happened, but some switch clicked and I had complete confidence in myself,” Schlemer said of the offensive outburst.
That confidence is key to Schlemer’s recent success, according to coaches and teammates alike. Sophomore guard Ariana Elegado said Schlemer has told her in private that she no longer feels that anyone can outmatch her in the post. Elegado shares those same sentiments, describing her teammate’s play as “beastly.”
“I think she has the ability to be just like (Santiago) or even score more than her,” Elegado said. “Honestly, I don’t think anyone in this league can stop her.”
Mimnaugh, a large reason why Schlemer chose to play for Cal Poly coming out of high school, said Schlemer’s success has simply come from taking advantage of her size on the block.
“A lot of the centers and forwards in our league are more multi-positional and more agile, but smaller,” Mimnaugh said. “So, she’s taken advantage of her strengths and her teammates are trying to feed her the ball in the proper spaces.”
And as Schlemer continues to rack up double-figure scoring performances as the regular season winds down, she’s eager to continue to prove herself on the court, even if it means getting a little help from mom.
“Even though she says that she likes to prove people wrong, I also think she likes it when people believe in her,” Lizabeth said.