Coming into a Monday morning practice, Cal Poly junior center Molly Schlemer wasn’t thinking about winning the Big West Conference Player of the Year award.
But after the workout, Schlemer and her teammates were in the locker room when women’s basketball coach Faith Mimnaugh came in, jumped on the couch and shouted “Molly won player of the year, Molly won player of the year” and ran out to resume a conference call.
Schlemer — a 6-foot-5 post player — is ranked eighth in the nation with a 55.6 shooting percentage and averages 12.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while recording 20 blocked shots in 29 games.
The Righetti High product is the fourth Cal Poly player in four years to win the conference player of the year honor.
“I honestly didn’t think I had a chance of getting it because there are a lot of good players in the conference, so I just didn’t think about it much,” Schlemer said. “But when we found out, all my teammates were so excited. It was great to enjoy that moment with them.”
Schlemer’s teammates — senior Kayla Griffin, junior Jonae Ervin and sophomore Ariana Elegado — each received honorable mention honors on the All-Big West Conference team. Griffin also earned the Big West Hustle award.
By winning the award, Schlemer follows in the footsteps of former teammates Kristina Santiago, who won it in 2009 and 2011, and Rachel Clancy, who was named the player of the year in 2010.
Mimnaugh said that the consecutive player of the year awards relate to the recent success of the program.
“In the past, we’ve had some really good players who were probably in that same mix but because our team didn’t finish first or second in the league those players weren’t considered,” Mimnaugh said.
“The whole program is lifted because the team is putting itself in position for championships every year and that’s putting our players in position for these kinds of accolades.”
Schlemer credits Mimnaugh for believing in her from the start and working to build up her confidence on the court, as well as her skill, moves and quickness.
Mimnaugh said Schlemer’s footwork and finishing ability around the basket are among her biggest improvements as a player from the time she came to Cal Poly.
She has scored in double figures in 20 games this season, including a career-high 28 points in a victory over Pacific on Jan. 13.
“Coach Faith never gave up on me and that helped give me a backbone in a way,” Schlemer said. “Having that confidence has enabled me to get where I am now.”
Cal Poly assistant Kari Duperron also has worked hard with Schlemer on her quickness inside and post moves. And Schlemer has worked at her conditioning to get close to WNBA standards for post players.
Mimnaugh said that at times teams key in on Schlemer, and her success has come with a price of extra attention on defense and, at times, cheap shots.
Mimnaugh recalled a game in which she was pinched by a Pacific player in the side and Schlemer pushed the opponent back.
“I told her that’s exactly how they want you to react,” Mimnaugh said. “The second time I told her, I don’t care if they pinch you, pat your butt, you’re not going to respond. You have to have poise. In her second game, she was magnificent. She was a whole new kid. She was a monster in the second half.”
Cal Poly’s coach added that if players like Elegado and Griffin weren’t knocking down shots it would make it easier for teams to key in on Schlemer. But the team members complement each other well.
Elegado averages 38 percent from behind the 3-point line and averages 12 points and four assists, while Griffin averages eight points and five assists.
Schlemer said she has a goal of playing basketball “as long as I can,” including professionally, and the player of the year award will help. But a more immediate goal is winning the Big West Tournament for the first time in school history and advancing to the NCAA Tournament.
“My freshman year, I saw UC Davis cut down the nets in the championship game and that was terrible,” Schlemer said. “Last year, we made it to the semis and so we’ve been close. This being my junior year, I hope the third time is the charm.”