The Cal Poly softball team is fighting to get back on top. After losing to Cal State Northridge (18-29, 6-9) this past weekend, the Mustangs (8-33, 4-11) are tied for last place in the Big West. In a preseason coach’s poll released back in February, Cal Poly was predicted to win the conference but two months later, it’s a completely different story.
But the Mustangs do have one thing on their side — youth. Seventy-five percent of the team is underclassmen, which means they have more seasons to play together as a team and learn from this season’s roller coaster of disappointment and frustration.
Battling through the season struggles for the first time is shortstop Kim Westlund. As the team’s third leading hitter (.266), it’s hard for the journalism freshman to look at the team’s season record knowing they are capable of much better, she said.
“You want to show that you came here for a reason and that you can perform at that level,” Westlund said.
Despite being a freshman, Westlund has started every game giving her the experience she said she wanted coming in to the team. In fact, all eight of the freshmen have started at least one game. Having the opportunity to start shows the coaches’ confidence in the first year players, but it also adds to the pressure of expectations, Westlund said.
“She’s (head coach Jenny Condon) said it plenty of times at practice — ‘You guys may be freshmen but that doesn’t mean anything. You’re part of the team and we brought you here to perform,’” Westlund said.
Condon said this season serves as a valuable learning experience for the younger players because it teaches them how grueling college athletics is. The pace of the game is much faster and the athletes they compete against are a lot bigger and stronger at this new level of play, Condon said.
“Everybody on the team was a star on their team back in high school so it’s kind of a crap shoot as to who is going to excel and who is going to struggle,” Condon said.
With the different learning curves among the new players, the team has struggled with aspects of the game, Condon said. Despite the challenges, they have bonded as a team.
“They get along really well and for the amounts of failures we’ve had as a team, the fact that they are not at each other’s throats is a testament to them,” Condon said. “They have never quit. They’re fighting as best they can, and hopefully we’ll get the break to get the outcome they’re looking for.”
But for pitcher Anna Cahn, this season has not seen the results she was looking for. In her last year playing as a Mustang, Cahn wanted to go on to postseason, and the Big West season ultimately determines if the team will play in the postseason, Cahn said.
“As of right now, I don’t think we have a chance to go to postseason,” Cahn said. “It’s been a really rough year for me. It’s really hard to see this season and everyone is feeling it. The morale is pretty low.”
As a sophomore in 2009, Cahn and the Mustangs won the Big West with five seniors on the team. Now, the senior leads the team as one of only two seniors. With all the new faces on the field, her advice is spread thin, Cahn said.
“As a freshman I didn’t really know the expectations and I looked to the older girls on what to do,” Cahn said. “But there are only two of us (seniors) so it’s been hard for us to help them out experience wise or (by) giving them tips.”
Now that time has gone by in the season, the underclassmen have accustomed themselves to what needs to be done, Cahn said.
“I think they are doing a good job,” Cahn said. “It just takes a little bit of time being fresh to a new level of play. For them, for those eight girls, if they stick together and work hard, I know they will do some really great things.”
With more than 15 years of experience in his professional career in athletics, athletics director Don Oberhelman is no stranger to witnessing young teams struggle initially, and then follow up the next seasons with success.
“If you have a team whose primary contributions come from underclassmen, they almost always are able to learn from those lessons,” Oberhelman said. “If they get knocked around a little bit, it’s a challenge as to what you are going to do. Are you going to fold the tent or are you going to dust yourself off and get better? Very rare does it not involve getting better and adding to the win total the next year and the years to come.”
Oberhelman fully anticipates the Mustangs to be a top contender for the Big West again next year. Moreover, he said this season will provide lessons that go beyond the game of softball.
“They’ll take these lessons on to life,” Oberhelman said. “This isn’t the only adversity they’re going to face in their lifetime. They’re going to face a lot of downtime in their careers and in their personal lives. This will teach them how to handle it in ways most students don’t get the opportunity to learn.”