Anna Cahn and Jenny Condon each got their first taste of adversity in Mustangs uniforms last season.
This year, the Cal Poly softball team’s senior leader — one of just two on the roster — is trying to remount the meteor that had her shooting for stardom, and the head coach is hoping another youth movement can get her program back on the winning track.
After their second Big West Conference championship in three seasons in 2009, culminated by the program’s first experience of postseason success, the Mustangs stumbled to a 23-24 overall record in 2010, their first sub-.500 mark in six years under coach Condon.
After being named Big West Pitcher of the Year, Cahn’s year-over-year ERA went up by half a run and her win-loss record in the circle sagged from 28-7 in 2009 to 13-13 in 2010.
“It was hard for me to come back,” Cahn said. “There’s a big target on your back when you win Big West. Everyone’s out to get you. They do scouting reports like everyone else. So I think people were more aware of us. Before 2009, people were like ‘Oh, it’s just Cal Poly.’ There were no expectations. There were expectations last year, and I don’t think we lived up to the expectations.”
Being voted by coaches to retake the conference title by a slim margin in this year’s preseason poll, don’t expect the Big West to look past the Mustangs.
With Cahn and sophomore Rebecca Patton (8-7, 3.48 ERA) — also the top two returning hitters — coming back in the circle, Condon might have more consistency on her pitching staff than anyone else in the conference.
Still, if the Mustangs are going to challenge for a championship and make a return to the postseason, much of the responsibility is sure to fall on a roster largely built on underclassmen, one that includes eight true freshmen and a brand new infield.
The Mustangs had three of four first-year starters in the infield last year. Competition from the new recruiting class has pushed coaches to go with another makeover.
Sophomore Shea Williams is back at one of the corner spots, and true freshmen Ashley Romano, Kim Westlund and Madison Vogelsang are penciled in at the other infield positions. Fellow freshmen Jen Walker (first base) and Mariah Cochiolo (catcher) are also likely to see playing time.
Cahn, senior catcher Stephanie Correia and junior outfielders Nora Sobzack and Nicole Lund are the only upperclassmen on the roster.
Condon is confident in her younger players’ chances at finding early success, but she truly won’t know what’s in store until Cal Poly opens the season today at the Kajikawa Classic hosted by Arizona State, where the Mustangs will have three of five games against opponents ranked in the top 25.
“I really feel like we’re a solid two deep at every position,” Condon said. “So, it’s a matter of what’s going to be the best chemistry? Who’s going to get it done? But on any given day, I feel like we’ve got at least two people who could start at any given position, which is kind of a luxury for us.
“We’ve done a lot of intrasquad scrimmaging and people have stepped up. You can see who thrives in the situations and who kind of cracks.”
The pressure intensifies when Cal Poly opens up with a doubleheader against No. 23 Oklahoma State and the No. 13 Sun Devils today. Before returning home, the Mustangs have a Saturday showdown with No. 2 Arizona. “Right now, we’re really comfortable,” Patton said. “We’ll have a lot of first-game jitters because we have so many freshmen, but I’m not worried at all. Everybody’s super laid back off the field.”
Patton could mentor this year’s crop of freshmen. She stepped seamlessly into the lineup in her first year on campus last season. With a strikingly calm demeanor, Patton took over the role as the No. 2 starter and even outperformed Cahn during Big West play with a 7-3 record and 2.58 ERA in conference games.
But the success or failure of the season will weigh heaviest on Cahn and Correia, who helped Cal Poly softball reach its pinnacle with two victories in the Stanford regional in 2009 before bowing out to the host Cardinal in the final.
This is their last chance to help the Mustangs reach another level, a berth in the Super Regional round and perhaps a trip to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City.
“I’m trying not to think about it, but in reality, it’s hitting me that this is it,” Cahn said. “It’s all out. I’m just trying to play my best in every game.
“I’m not trying to get the personal awards, but really just trying to focus on how I can help and how we can be a better team, so we can get to Oklahoma City.
“That’s been the goal for the past four years, but this is it, kind of like all or nothing.”