The Big West Women’s Tennis Championship in 2021 was a face-off between two of the biggest rivals in collegiate athletics: the Cal Poly Mustangs and the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos.

Both teams did this after each turning in some of the most successful seasons in their respective programs’ histories.

In a hard-fought matchup, the Gauchos eventually lifted the trophy after a 4-0 victory over the Mustangs, a loss that left a bad taste in Cal Poly’s mouth.

“That loss definitely hurt,” Cal Poly head coach Katharina Winterhalter said. “The girls were very competitive all year and nobody likes to lose no matter who we’re losing to. Getting that close hurt but it’s motivation for [the team].”

However, the loss proved to be more than just that for the program, as it gave the team a new sense of identity heading into the offseason.

“Looking back at last season, it definitely proved to us that we can win the Big West tournament,” redshirt junior Emily Ackerman said. “Losing in the finals has made us more excited and pumped to have the opportunity again.”

So far in 2022, the Mustangs are taking advantage of this excitement to compete for yet another conference championship.

Cal Poly is 15-5 on the season, which is the most wins in one season for the program since 2011 when the team won 16 games.

On top of this overall record, the Mustangs are a perfect 8-0 in matchups against teams in the Big West. 

When asked about why the team has had so much success in conference play, Ackerman acknowledged the trust that everyone on the team has with one another to compete against every opponent they face.

“The biggest thing is that we all have a lot of respect for each other,” Ackerman said. “We know that each girl is good enough to play at any spot in the lineup. The confidence that we have in each other helps us push one another and be super excited to play and step on the court.”

This respect and trust doesn’t come overnight, however. There are five returning players –– Ackerman, redshirt junior Kim Bhunu, redshirt sophomore Delanie Dunkle and redshirt sophomore Melissa LaMette –– from the 2021 squad that fell just short of the Big West championship. 

Coach Winterhalter praised these players for their growth and their impact on the younger players on the team.

“They’ve built confidence over the past couple of years through their own experiences,” Winterhalter said. “They’re teaching the younger players what Cal Poly women’s tennis is all about, how we do things and how we run everything.”

One of these freshmen that could be the biggest difference from last year’s team to the 2022 roster is Peyton Dunkle, the sister of Delanie Dunkle.

Peyton Dunkle is a team-best 13-3 in singles play heading into the final matchup of the season and, when paired up with graduate Laura Bente, she is 9-1 in doubles play.

“Coming into the team as a freshman, I know they all had their goal and we know what it takes to contribute to that goal,” Peyton Dunkle said. “Individually, I’ve learned to be focused on myself and not the outcome. I want to do it more for the team and not my own record.”

With many of the team returning and a budding star in Peyton Dunkle, women’s tennis looks to be on its way to competing for another Big West championship.

However, a matchup with UC Santa Barbara on Saturday, Apr. 23 at 1:30 p.m. awaits to determine the Big West regular-season champion. If Cal Poly were to take down the Gauchos, it would be the first regular-season championship for the program since the 2011 season.

“We’re definitely looking at that last matchup against Santa Barbara and we want to win that one,” Ackerman said. “We need to go in with the confidence we have had all season. We have to trust that the work that we put in every day will pay off.”

While acknowledging the importance of the championship rematch, Coach Winterhalter is preaching to the team to “go into it like any other matchup.”

“The message is the same as it was on day one,” Winterhalter said. “Can we get a little bit better today? Can we go out and put in full effort with a positive attitude and enthusiasm for the game of tennis?”