The historically successful Cal Poly Women’s Tennis squad from 2022 was one to remember, finishing the season ranked No. 70 in the nation with 17 wins, the most since 2003.
After an undefeated conference record, the Mustangs suffered a defeat to conference rival and No. 22 UC Santa Barbara in the Big West Championships.
However, the heart-breaking loss has just added fuel to the fire for the Mustangs, as they seem to be eager to bounce back stronger than ever for the 2023 campaign.
“It hurts more, and hurts for a while,” senior Melissa LaMette said. “The hunger definitely grew and we really feel like we’re in a place where we can do it and this is our year.”
Coach Williams’ Return to SLO
Followers of the team may recognize a familiar face calling the shots for the Mustangs, as Ellie Edles Williams has returned to San Luis Obispo and taken over the head coaching position. after her tenure at CSU Fullerton last year
Williams was an assistant with Cal Poly and was promoted to the associate head coach position in 2020.
“It’s pretty special, there aren’t very many coaches who get to coach freshman as an assistant then come back and get to see how much they have grown to their senior years,” Williams said.
Senior Delanie Dunkle, one of the top returning Mustangs and a focal point in last year’s success, believes that having Williams back is just what they need to establish a positive culture and push them over the edge to a Big West Championship.
“Coach Williams is a leader and our coach, but a friend first,” Dunkle said. “She knows that the team is only as good as the culture off the court. Her door is always open, she wants to get to know everyone at an individual level and build relationships with her players.”
Graduate Kim Bhunu, another key upperclassman on the squad, echoed this sentiment.
“[Williams] is a great coach and she comes with different experience,” Bhunu said. “You can see she is hungry for it, and as a player seeing that your coach wants success just as much as you pushes you further and harder when you compete in big matchups.”
Besides motivating the team for the season, Williams also pushes for high-performing teams. In her coaching career, the UC Davis graduate has vaulted teams to top five rankings and been a part of championship runs.
Leadership at the top
Teams tend to look different year-to-year with incoming freshmen and graduated seniors, but this team is different.
Heading into the spring, they have returned seven players, including Bhunu, who has earned All-Conference honors in back-to-back seasons. These seasoned players, according to Bhunu, are positioned to bring up the underclassmen on the roster.
“All of our seniors take part in helping the freshman get accustomed to the team and reassuring them that they can do this,” Bhunu said. “We like to push them to give it their all and fight to win every match.”
Other returning upperclassmen are Dunkle and LaMette, who were a dominant double pairing last year, boasting a 12-4 record to pave the way to Second Team All-Big West Honors.
The growth of this team is a unique strength, as time and time again, Cal Poly has cultivated its young stars and helped them reach their highest potential physically and mentally on the court.
“On the court, I am definitely hitting a bigger ball,” LaMette said. “I’m feeling stronger and more comfortable on the baseline. Mentally, I have grown with the help of our sports psychologist, Jeff. Off-season work has been the key in my constant development.”
Youth will be an exciting storyline to watch for the Mustangs with many underclassmen stepping into new and bigger roles, something that Dunkle is looking forward to.
“We have a younger team this year and it will be nice to really be involved in developing the team from a leadership position,” Dunkle said. “I’m excited for the progress.”
One thing that can be counted on to be passed down to the youth is the hunger and passion to be a Big West powerhouse and to take down rival UC Santa Barbara.
Playing with passion
Women’s Tennis has been making headlines for the past few years, and the noise is getting even louder in anticipation of 2023, and getting revenge for that Big West Championship loss is fresh in the team’s minds.
“We’ve got a few [goals],” Dunkle said. “One, win the Big West. Two, beat the Gauchos. Three, be top 50 in national ranking.”
The matchup between Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara will be in enemy territory this year, taking place in Santa Barbara on April 22 just ahead of conference playoffs.
“We’re for sure looking forward to Santa Barbara — this time we’re taking it,” Bhunu said. “We all want this bad.”
The fans have played a huge part in the Mustangs’ success, according to the team. Mustang Tennis Complex is one of the toughest places to play for opposing teams, as the students and San Luis Obispo residents show out for their squad.
“A huge advantage that we have is the amazing community and student support,” Dunkle said. “Whenever we travel to other Big West matches there is usually nobody there. The more people we can get, the louder it is and the better we play.”
With a strong community behind the players and a familiar head coach at the helm, the team is fired up for this season.
“Everyone should be excited for strong competition,” Williams said. “We have a lot of team pride, a lot of team spirit, exciting energy and elite athletes as well.”