Senior forward Kristina Santiago averaged a conference-high 19 points per game last season. Ryan Sidarto — Mustang Daily

As Big West Player of the Year Kristina Santiago and the rest of the Mustangs sat in the locker room after UC Riverside ended their season, a mix of emotions set in. In the Mustangs’ first game of the Big West Tournament, they had just been upset by the Highlanders 54-51 — halting their championship run short by one game. Disappointment and exhaustion soon replaced joy and excitement for a team that had pieced together one of the most successful seasons in program history.

“It didn’t feel like it was over,” Santiago said. “We were expecting to win it and go to the championship. It was a very unaccomplished feeling.”

This season, the Mustangs are going to make sure they don’t feel those emotions again.

The Mustangs bring back just two starters and 11 letter-winners from last year’s team which went 18-11 (11-5 Big West). They return players such as Santiago — who averaged a conference-high 19 points per game last season — and Rachel Clancy, an All-Big West honorable mention selection a year ago. Santiago and Clancy, along with the rest of the Mustangs, will be looking to grab hold of the one thing which has eluded them so many times — a Big West championship.

“We have been so close, it’s been right there too many times,” Clancy said. “I definitely believe this year will be the year where we can actually snatch it.”

Every year since the program started, the women’s basketball team has fallen short of a championship. In the program’s 37-year history, no team has been named a Big West champion.

In 2009-10, the Mustangs were close. Cal Poly tied a school record for conference wins and conference winning percentage. Its second-place finish in the Big West was the highest finish in the program’s history.

And yet, the Mustangs fell in the semi-final round of the Big West tournament at the hands of UC Riverside.

“We came out all fired up and I feel like we all had it in control and then we just let it slip away,” Clancy said. “We definitely expected to be there longer than that. It just didn’t feel real at all.”

If the Mustangs are going to piece together the effort to make a championship run this year, they are going to need all the firepower they can get. Multiple obstacles stand in the way of that Big West Championship trophy.

In the Big West, there will be no easy wins, head coach Faith Mimnaugh said. UC Riverside has always seemed to be a constant thorn in Cal Poly’s side. UC Davis returned all its starters but one and UC Santa Barbara has numerous redshirts and transfers joining its team this year.

“I think in the last couple of years we have seen a growth from all the programs (in the Big West),” Mimnaugh said. “I have a great respect for all of our opponents. I think it will be one dog fight to get to the top.”

Even before its conference schedule, Cal Poly is on the road for seven of its first 10 games. Overall, the Mustangs will play the most road games in program history this year, Mimnaugh said.

“That will be a certain challenge,” Mimnaugh said. “On top of that, it will be the toughest from an opponent standpoint. Probably the toughest (non-conference) schedule we have ever put together.”

That doesn’t mean the team isn’t determined to try and make a championship run. Santiago, as well as many other players, are making sure they are doing all they can in the off-season to help the team get there.

“I knew coming into this season I needed to work really hard,” Santiago said. “I actually ended up overworking and got tendinitis in my knees from doing too much. I know a lot of the girls on the team were working really hard through the summer to help us win.”

There are a few changes in offensive and defensive schematics this year. Mimnaugh is adding a couple new kinks in the playbook, hopefully, to help the team on the court this season, she said.

“This year we are implementing a little bit of the Princeton offense — a lot of movement on the court,” Mimnaugh said. “It’s a challenge to try and get it all in before our first game but the team is really focused in trying to improve every day.”

Experienced players like Santiago and Clancy are helping with that transition. They are making sure each player knows their assignments on the floor at all times. Rather than rushing through a play and getting it wrong, seniors are helping the team by slowing things down and doing them the right way, Santiago said.

“That is one thing that we have been trying to do with the inexperienced people is really thoroughly explaining what we are doing,” Santiago said. “So we can get it right the first time and not develop those bad habits.”

Hopefully that effort is enough to help the Mustangs hoist a Big West championship trophy this year. If players like Santiago and Clancy can use their experience to help the team, the Mustangs will be far from the feeling they felt at the end of last season.

They are certainly capable of doing so, Mimnaugh said.

“We have the makings for a very, very good team this year if we can stay healthy and focused,” Mimnaugh said.

— Patrick Leiva contributed to this article.

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