[follow id = “harrychangmn”]
Heading into Big West play last month, the Cal Poly softball team was looking for revitalization — an ignition of sorts to somehow tip the balance of its perfectly even 17-17 nonconference season.
What the Mustangs had after their first Big West series was a result that indeed tipped the balance, but in completely the wrong direction. The Mustangs suffered a sweep at the hands of Cal State Northridge, which put them in an early 0-3 cellar to start conference play.
Discouraging, yes, but in a season defined by ups and downs, the Mustangs are no strangers to bouncing back.
Since losing that series in the final weekend of March, the Mustangs have gotten out to a hot 4-2 start in April, including three wins in their past four games and series wins against UC Santa Barbara and UC Davis.
Cal Poly (4-5 Big West Conference) now sits tied with UC Riverside for fifth place in the conference, but remain just a half-game back of a three-way second-place tie between Cal State Fullerton, Hawaii and Long Beach State, who all sit at 5-4, while Cal State Northridge tops the Big West with a 9-0 record.
So where do the Mustangs go from here?
It starts with a series against Hawaii at home this coming weekend.
Hawaii, which has risen to a 24-18 overall record this year, enters the three-game set coming off of a series at Long Beach State, where they lost two out of three games. The Rainbow Wahine, however, still boast a 59 national RPI ranking, according to the latest NCAA release.
Led by sophomore pitcher/first baseman Heather Morales, who has a .330 batting average this season as well as a team-high 27 RBI and 38 hits coming into the weekend series, the Wahine boast a .431 team slugging average second only to Cal State Northridge in the Big West.
Also figuring to be a large factor offensively for the Rainbow Wahine is fellow sophomore Sarina Jaramillo. The 5-foot-5 Wahine shortstop is second on the team with a .316 batting average and has crossed the plate 16 times to score for Hawaii. Jaramillo also has four doubles and 18 RBI.
Junior right fielder and leadoff hitter Keiki Carlos, who may end up being the key out for the Mustangs if they wish to minimize runs, rounds out the Rainbow Wahine’s offensive attack.
Carlos has 29 runs scored and nine doubles on the year and has been one of the more consistent players in the Big West, starting in all 42 games and collecting a team-high 42 hits while compiling a .311 overall batting average and hurting Big West opponents with a .353 average in conference play.
Hawaii head coach Bob Coolen will send a solid pitching rotation to the mound as well, a staff that begins with redshirt freshman Brittany Hitchcock. Hitchcock is 11-6 overall this year with a 2.55 ERA in 120.2 innings pitched over 24 appearances.
Also looking to silence the Mustangs’ bats will be sophomore Kanani Aina Cabrales, who is 12-12 overall with a 2.66 ERA in 134.0 innings pitched. Aina Cabrales has four shutouts on the season and has especially upped her performance of late, recording a 1.81 ERA and a 3-3 record with a shutout already in just six conference starts.
Countering with a potent pitching staff of their own, the Mustangs and head coach Jenny Condon are led by reigning Big West Pitcher of the Year, sophomore right-hander Sierra Hyland.
Hyland enters Friday’s matchup with a 16-14 overall record and a Big West-leading 197 strikeouts and 197.1 innings pitched. Hyland’s 197 strikeouts also put her at 16th among NCAA Division I pitchers and on pace to become just the second player in Cal Poly history to post back-to-back 200-strikeout seasons.
Opposing batters are also averaging just .203 against Hyland, opening the door for the Mustangs offense to jump out to an early lead, which is something Courtney Tyler, an All-Big West selection and sophomore right fielder, would love to do.
Cal Poly’s leading and most efficient hitter, Tyler, who comes into Friday’s matchup ranked 10th among conference players with a .361 (43-for-119) batting average while leading Cal Poly with 13 multihit games, should figure to be a key component to the Mustangs offense as she’s gotten on base in nearly half of her plate appearances this season. Look for Tyler to disrupt pitchers’ rhythms and increase their pitch count all weekend.
The Mustangs, who are 17-2 when outhitting their opponents this season but just 3-18 when being outhit, will also hope that emerging players like freshman designated player Stephanie Heyward can continue to impress.
Heyward is ranked second on Cal Poly with a .330 average and has started 41 of Poly’s 43 games. She’ll bring a seven-game hitting streak into the weekend series as Condon continues to coach up her youngest-ever team, as well as one of the youngest squads in the nation.
The Mustangs have seven freshmen, five sophomores, and just one senior; however, youth like Heyward has proved it can be a plus for a middle-of-the-pack Mustangs team looking for a shot in the arm.
Game one of the weekend series is set for Friday at 4 p.m. while Saturday will be a doubleheader with game one scheduled for 2.p.m., followed by a 4 p.m. first pitch for the series’ final game.