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When Cal Poly shut out UC Riverside 3-0 last May, it capped off a 33-19 overall record on the year and a 14-7 posting in Big West Conference play. Both were the Mustangs’ best finish in five years.
But when the Senior Day victory was sealed, the spring afternoon also signified one of Cal Poly’s biggest losses in recent memory.
Seven seniors walked off Bob Janssen field that day, the last time they would do so in their college careers, and head coach Jenny Condon could only look back on an era that saw the kind of continuity and experience every coach dreams of.
Now, at the start of a new season, it’s not a five-year best 33-19 squad that Condon will lead. A different set of exceptional numbers define the Mustangs: eight freshmen, five sophomores, two juniors and one senior.
“Young,” Condon says. “The youngest team I’ve ever coached.”
Condon, who is entering her 11th season as Cal Poly’s head coach, will field an underclassmen-rich roster that returns just four starters and adds six new freshmen position players.
“It’s a class that I think really has the potential to add to a balanced team,” Condon says. “Chelsea (Conivassar) and Amanda (Sandoval), for example, are two players that really can shine and help us get better on both the offensive and defensive side of the game.”
Accompanying the new-look defense are Dayna Master and Alejandra Garcia, infielders who can also fill in as catchers, as well as true catcher Susanne Morris and outfielder Alina Goodrum.
On the mound, the Mustangs welcome two freshmen — Lindsey Chalmers and Stephanie Heyward — who will add to their three-person, all-underclassmen rotation. Despite the youth, pitching is an area Condon thinks will prove to be this team’s strength.
“We really are adding two strong pitchers in Lindsey and Steph,” Condon says, “They’ll be players who give us a chance to win a game every time they take the mound.”
Part of the reason for that optimism is the proven right-handed arm of sophomore pitcher, Sierra Hyland, which Mustangs newcomers Chalmers and Heyward will have to learn under.
As Mustangs’ lone senior, outfielder Emily Ceccacci knows the best way to grow as a college player is to do just that — learn from the best.
“It’s huge (to have Hyland),” Ceccacci said. “Especially with such a young team being able to have that thought as a returner. She hasn’t skipped a beat. I mean, she’s came back just as strong as she left off last year. She’s a good role model for our two freshmen pitchers.”
Hyland’s 26 victories last year ranked as the highest national total by a freshman. This year, Hyland has already picked up right where she left off. She recorded three strong outings last weekend in the team’s first action at the Arizona State Kajikawa Classic and led the team to its first three wins. The performance was good enough to garner Hyland the season’s first Big West Pitcher of the Week award.
“I think with that leadership,” Condon added, “the freshmen will be able to step up right behind her and continue working as a staff to help us win some ball games.”
The five games the Mustangs played at the Kajikawa Classic were Condon’s first chance to see the revamped team play at game speed. While there were some opening-day butterflies in the building, three wins and five games of experience for the eight freshmen have the Mustangs rolling early.
“We did see some nerves in our first weekend, but that’s always something you deal with playing in your first-ever college game,” Condon said after the tournament. “Overall, I really liked what I saw. Everyone seemed to shake off the jitters and a weekend like that gives us the chance to go back to the drawing board and see where we stand.”
Wet behind the ears? Maybe. But scared? Not in the least. Following a season where the Mustangs missed winning the Big West by just one game, the team has been hungry to get back on the field. And youth, Condon feels, can prove to be an advantage in a year where the Mustangs are anything but under the radar.
“Everyone by now knows us in our conference, and the nation knows our conference,” Condon said. “But our freshmen and sophomores are not intimidated. There are a lot of positive attributes I already see — they’re hungry, but at the same time they know they’re playing the same game they’ve always known, and that’s something we try and preach.”
From a teammate standpoint, Ceccacci says the same thing. Before Cal Poly first series last week, the senior leader stressed that nothing truly changes in college ball other than the competition. Same inning count, same three outs per inning, same game they’ve all played their whole life prior to taking the NCAA stage.
“I have a lot of help from the sophomores to get them pumped up and get them going,” she says. “But honestly, they have the passion to play so it really doesn’t take much.”
So while you may have to check the program a bit more than last year when the Mustangs take the field for their first homestand, the Mustang Classic, which will be held March 5-8 – don’t expect to have to check their enthusiasm nor their ability.
“We may be young, but this team has the passion and motivation to win and make it to postseason,” Ceccacci continued. “With the talent that’s come in this year, we definitely will be a team to watch.”