Just when I was beginning my quest for more straws to clutch, the Cal Poly basketball programs had an eyebrow-raising week, and if it keeps up, give these coaches some hardware.
After lulling us to sleep with inauspicious starts to the year, both the men and women went 2-0 — each sweeping NorCal travel partners Pacific and UC Davis in the second week of Big West Conference play. Now the women are 3-0 in conference and sit tied for first with UC Irvine, while the men are 2-1 and all alone in second place.
We shouldn’t be surprised. A similar storyline emerged for the Mustangs men last season when they lost their first five games of the regular season and went on to stake themselves to a surprising 5-2 Big West Conference start in Joe Callero’s first year coaching the team.
Callero came out looking like a strategic whiz while redshirting five of his recruits and relying on consistent contributions from Jordan Lewis and Ryan Darling, walk-ons from the previous regime.
If the current pace keeps up, however, the accomplishments of Callero and women’s head coach Faith Mimnaugh have to trump the men’s return to the Big West Tournament last season and the women’s run to the conference tournament finals in 2009.
It’s a big if this early in the season, but if either of these teams can contend in the top three of the Big West, he or she or both should deserve heavy consideration for conference coach of the year.
And it all can be chalked up to who isn’t in the lineup.
For the men, it seemed a week hasn’t gone by where there hasn’t been a new injury to report.
The season started with news that point guard Amaurys Fermin and shooting guard Kyle Odister were already out for the season. Then 6-10 forward Ben Eisenhardt came down with a fungal infection that knocked him out for the first month of the season. Next came Drake U’u's broken hand. Chris O’Brien’s ankle strain followed that up, and walk-on sophomore guard Dylan Royer hasn’t played since straining his neck on the trip to Stockton.
Add in the loss of 6-6 forward Will Taylor, who elected to redshirt this season, and the Mustangs are down to an eight-man rotation that includes two true freshmen and two walk-ons.
The result has been a 54.6 points-per-game average that ranks 332nd out of 336 Division I men’s basketball teams. Yet the team still sports a 6-8 overall record.
Attribute that part of the equation to Callero, who’s defensive gameplan has resulted in an opponents scoring average of 57.9 points, which ranks 11th in the country.
When the main object of the game is to score as much as possible, and your team is one of the worst at doing so — yet it can still win games — it’s got to be strategy.
For the women, the losses have been just as bad or worse.
Within 2 minutes of the season opener, the Mustangs lost defending Big West women’s player of the year Kristina Santiago to a season-ending knee injury. That alone should have reasonably been enough to sink Cal Poly’s season.
Santiago will redshirt and return next season, but that hasn’t been all. Christine Martin played eight games before being lost to a season-ending back injury. Redshirt freshman Nikol Allison got in two games before suffering a potentially career-threatening injury. Heralded true freshman guard Ariana Elegado was in line for playing time this season before an injury knocked her out. Plus, forward Ariel Gregersen is taking a year away from the team for personal reasons.
There have also been other interruptions in playing time. After playing in 10 games, forward Aly Geppert was removed from the team for unspecified reasons, and several others began serving suspensions for violation of team rules this past week. Senior guard Desiray Johnston missed the win over Pacific, and second-leading scorer Ashlee Burns and center Abby Bloetscher missed both games.
Yet still, opponents are losing track of dead-eye shooter Rachel Clancy, who’s averaging a career-high 16.8 points per game, and Mimnaugh has implemented a five-guard lineup that seems to have its Big West competition stumped.
With the rotation at its thinnest, Cal Poly put up a season-high 84 points on Pacific.
It was already realistic to think Cal Poly would have no chance of replacing the do-everything Santiago, who was the team’s leader in scoring, rebounding and steals.
If the Mustangs can get back to the heights Santiago took them to in her past two seasons, hand it to Mimnaugh for sticking to her guns on team rules and still guiding the team to victory.