The Mustangs have a season-opening exhibition game against UC Santa Cruz on Friday. Credit: Kayla Stuart | Mustang News, 2022

“Kaizen” is the Japanese word meaning ​the practice of continuously improving, and it’s the theme that first-year head coach Shanele Stires has implemented within the Cal Poly women’s basketball program. 

“What we want from our preseason games and the whole season is to improve constantly so that at the end of the season, we are playing our best basketball,” senior forward Julia Nielancna said. 

The Mustangs are looking to bounce back from a 3-22 record last season, and the changes started back in April with the hiring of Stires. 

Stires came to the Central Coast after being at Cal State East Bay over the past six seasons. She led the Pioneers to a 94-53 overall record, coaching the program to at least the semifinals of the CCAA Tournament in five of her six seasons, including winning titles in 2017 and 2022.

During her time at the helm, Stires produced 11 All-Conference players and 31 CCAA All-Academic honored players. 

​​”Everybody wants to see a winner,” Stires said. “And we want that too, so we’re hard at work and trying to make that happen.”

However, this is the first step up to Division-I level basketball that Stires and her staff have taken, and without having a true recruiting season, Stires has been focused on changing the culture this offseason. 

“I think one of the biggest things is that the school I just came from was maybe a little bit grittier,” Stires said. “This is a kind of paradise, and when you’re in paradise, you have the propensity to relax. That’s what we’re trying to do with our culture in our program is to ensure that we don’t allow our players to become complacent.”

Nielacna echoed this sentiment, adding that the team went on a retreat to Frazier Park to “talk about what we want the program to be.”

“The complete cultural transition has been challenging,” Nielancna said.

Along with the culture change, Stires brought in three graduate transfers, all guards.

Oumou Toure transferred in from the University of Butler where she was an All-Conference Freshman, averaging 9.1 points per game and leading the team with 63 steals. However, she has not seen the court since her freshman year due to COVID-19 and a pair of season-ending injuries. 

Nikola Kovacikova came to Cal Poly after playing previously at the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown University. The guard played in 19 games last season, starting in eight of them.

A Hawaii native, Taylor Wu transferred in from Cal Baptist University. She has played in 70 collegiate career games and scored 8.9 points per game last season while reaching double figures 11 times.

“All three of them are talented beyond measure,” Stires said. “Nikki brings veteran point guard play and poise, Oumou brings dynamic athleticism and versatility and Taylor Wu brings tremendous ball skills.

“Each one of them adds a different dimension that I think elevates our program and makes us a lot more competitive immediately.”

Even with the influx of elder statesmen, the team’s core still stands with senior point guard Maddie Vick.

However, concerns about an injury sustained in practice have been growing more prominent as she has yet to make her return. 

Vick has been the “go-to” over the last two seasons, averaging 35.6 minutes per game. She led the team in scoring and assists last season while also manning the opposing team’s top guard on the defensive end. 

“She’s had some setbacks in the past, and so we’re taking it easy with her as we’re kind of heading into the season, and we’re making sure she’s here for the long haul,” Stires said.

Without Vick in the lineup, this Cal Poly team will have to rely on senior guard Maddie Willett, sophomore point guard Annika Shah, Nielancna and the new transfers.

There won’t be much time to figure things out, however, as the Mustangs have one of the toughest opening slates of games in the country.

In the first month of its season, Cal Poly will face off against UCLA, No. 2 Stanford, Fresno State and the reigning NCAA Champions in the University of South Carolina. 

“We’re playing some big-time schools and big-time heavy hitters, so we got our work cut out for us and I think we’re going to learn a lot about ourselves here early,” Stires said. “In the short term, we’ve got to be more improvement driven, and maybe less focused on wins and losses and more about how we’re playing and our style of basketball.”

It is clear that there is an understanding that the program has endured a lot of change over the previous six months and will be subject to growing pains throughout the early non-conference season. 

However, that doesn’t mean that Stires and the Mustangs aren’t committed to the grind.

“You’re going to see high energy,” Stires said. “You’re going to see a huge difference in the collective culture and connectivity between the players.”

Cal Poly will open up play in an exhibition matchup against UC Santa Cruz on Friday at 2 p.m. inside Mott Athletics Center.