If the Cal Poly softball team seemed adrift before Sierra Hyland came to San Luis Obispo, that’s because it was.
Five years ago, Cal Poly softball and head coach Jenny Condon were a pairing on the rise. In five seasons, they had a pair of Big West Conference titles to go with a pair of victories at an NCAA regional in 2009 — the first in school history on both accounts.
Then, as suddenly as the program arrived, it sank into an extended slump, with the regression leaving many to wonder what went wrong.
Soon enough, the championship mentality was lost. The dream of reaching the Women’s College World Series was forgotten.
“We’d talk about goals in a meeting and someone would say the top half of the conference, and I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” Condon said. “No, we’re competing for a conference championship. That’s our goal. That should always be that so we can get to postseason so we can get to Oklahoma City.”
Cal Poly needed a breath of fresh air. Then came Hyland, and fortunes reversed.
The epitome of the Mustangs’ made-over recruiting philosophy, the record-setting pitcher helped Cal Poly stoke the old championship ambitions, and with a hurler capable of keeping them in any game, the Mustangs remained in the Big West title chase through the penultimate game of this season.
NCAA Regional hopes effectively ended in heartbreak when Cal Poly dropped the second game of a doubleheader at home May 9 to UC Riverside.
But Condon and her players are confident the program is back on track.
“I have a good feeling about the future,” Hyland said. “We created a culture to carry on through the seasons to come, and that will help us out with the winning mentality.”
Much of the optimism rests on Hyland’s shoulders, and rightfully so.
The Visalia El Diamante High product broke five school records in her first season on campus. At season’s end, her program record 13 shutouts ranked third among Division I pitchers. She was also 13th nationally both with a program-record 263 strikeouts and 4.32 hits allowed per seven innings. With a 26-8 record and 1.51 ERA, Hyland also set single-season program bests in innings pitched (264 1⁄3), starts (34) and appearances (42). Her single-season victory total is second all-time at Cal Poly.
Hyland was recently named both Pitcher of the Year and Freshman Pitcher of the Year by the Big West and remains one of 10 finalists for the national Freshman Pitcher of the Year award. As if that wasn’t enough,
Hyland also hit .366 with 11 doubles, six home runs, 36 RBI and a .570 slugging percentage — leading the team in every category as it went from 19-34-1 last season to 33-19 this year.
“It’s crazy to even think of that,” Hyland said. “To know that I got pitcher of the Big West, that’s awesome. I wasn’t really expecting to get that at the beginning of the year. I just thought as a freshman, I would come in and do my job, get what I needed to get done. Stuff like that.”
Hyland was a high-school legend. She was a four-time league and county player of the year, losing just three games total during her junior and senior seasons, when El Diamante was nationally ranked.
Still, her modest nature keeps her guarded from any sense of entitlement, and her humble, hard-working mentality is exactly what Condon said the team was missing during its tailspin.
Cal Poly went 39-17 and won its first Big West title in 2007, getting its first taste of an NCAA regional. After a third-place Big West finish in 2008, the Mustangs reclaimed the conference crown in 2009 and went 2-2 at the Palo Alto Regional, losing to host Stanford in the title game.
With a 23-24 record in 2010, Condon suffered her first losing season at Cal Poly. Then followed win totals of 11, 13 and 19. The Mustangs went three seasons without winning more than eight conference games.
Condon took responsibility for making poor recruiting decisions, something she said had to be rectified.
“In the past, we always wanted to get the big recruit,” Condon said, “but we realized when you’re begging a kid to come to your program, that’s not a good thing. We want the kids who want to be a part of Cal Poly softball.
“Sometimes one or two bad people really make an environment toxic. So we had to clean house a little bit.
“We want the blue-collar kid that doesn’t feel like we owe them anything.”
In pursuit of Hyland, two things worked in Cal Poly’s favor.
Condon swooped in to offer her a scholarship early enough to get a commitment before Hyland gained attention from traditional powerhouse programs. And Hyland felt right at home on the Central Coast, a regular family vacation destination.
By her own admission, however, Hyland isn’t a vocal leader. She couldn’t have changed the collective attitude of a roster of 17 all on her own.
The Mustangs featured seven seniors this season, most of whom were recruited during the 2009 season that stands as the greatest in program history.
They were brought in with the expectation that they would continue to build on that tradition. Instead, the losses piled up, and those expectations faded. It got to a point where players dreaded seeing the field.
“When you’re losing, you break down individually,” senior shortstop Kim Westlund said. “You don’t stay together as a team.
“Those postseason thoughts get smaller and smaller and smaller after those years.
“The program needed a change, and it wasn’t just winning more ballgames. It was the players wanting to come out there. … Even with a coaching staff that believed in us that we could go out there and win a game, it’s got to come from within ourselves.”
A big boost of belief came in the second game of the season, when the Mustangs beat nationally ranked Oregon 6-4 with Hyland and five other freshmen suspended for a violation of team rules.
The Ducks later ascended to the top of the national rankings and entered the postseason as the No. 1 overall seed.
Cal Poly realized that it could compete with the best once again, and the Mustangs are hoping that fortitude is here to stay.
“When you struggle as much as we had in the past couple years, it’s hard to really see that,” Condon said. “This year, they believed that they could beat anybody that they played. Confidence is such a huge part of sports. Once they bought into themselves, it took care of itself.”