The last time the Cal Poly football team won the Great West Conference championship, Scott Winnewisser was watching from the sideline, the victim of an MCL tear on the final play of the 2008 season opener.
The former long-snapper watched the winning field goal soar through the uprights in a 29-27 last-second win over San Diego State, then felt his knee twist violently under the weight of the Aztecs’ defensive line.
That conference championship ring at the end of the season made him feel a little better about the injury. It also inspired thoughts that he could get three more rings to go with it.
But the past two seasons ended in disappointment, and with the Mustangs picked to finish second Wednesday in the Great West Preseason Coaches Poll, this year marks the last chance for the senior guard to add to his collection.
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With Cal Poly moving into the Big Sky Conference and the Great West dissolving as a football conference in 2012, it’s the last chance for defending champion Southern Utah, UC Davis, North Dakota and South Dakota, too.
“Every year, it’s hard,” Winewisser said. “We can’t ever look at these guys softly. Every game, we’re going to treat it like a playoff game. We let it slip away last year and then the year before it was just a terrible season.”
Cal Poly was 4-7 in head coach Tim Walsh’s first year in 2009 and 7-4 last season, when a devastating one-point loss to rival UC Davis in the season finale denied the Mustangs a chance at a playoff berth.
Watching his team in half pads for the first time this season during training camp Wednesday, Walsh got word that the Mustangs received two first-place votes, the same as leading vote-getter Southern Utah and trailed the Thunderbirds by only one point overall.
UC Davis received the only other first-place vote.
“In this league, I could see all of us looking to point fingers at different teams because everybody’s pretty good,” Walsh said. “And that’s been exemplified in the past two seasons I’ve been in the conference.
“Preseason polls are all good for the hype, but the reality of it is we have to go play and play better than we did last year if we want to win this conference championship.”
The Great West title is no guarantee in the pursuit of a playoff berth. Because of its unstable history of membership, the conference never qualified for an automatic berth to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
Southern Utah was undefeated in the Great West last season and was left out of the 20-team playoff bracket with a 6-5 record.
The lack of an automatic playoff bid is one of the reasons teams were searching for a new home for football. Southern Utah, UC Davis and North Dakota will all be joining the Big Sky next year. South Dakota is joining North Dakota State and South Dakota State in the Missouri Valley Conference.
That said, there’s an expectation for the Mustangs to win their fourth Great West title.
Cal Poly finished first in 2005 — its inaugural year in the conference — 2007 and 2008.
“We came in with it, we want to go out with it,” Walsh said, “and that’s kind of the way we’re approaching the season.”
Women’s soccer picked for sixth in Big West
The Cal Poly women’s soccer team, which returns 23 letterwinners from a squad that finished 9-9-1 and 3-4-1 in the Big West Conference, was picked to finish sixth and received one first-place vote in the preseason coaches poll.
Junior forward Bianca Burright is the leading returning scorer, with four goals and three assists in 2010. Senior goalkeeper Brooke Gauvin returns after allowing only 1.16 goals per game last season.
UC Irvine was picked to finish first. The Anteaters received seven first-place votes and 78 points overall.
Long Beach State received 70 points, good for second, and Cal State Northridge (52), Pacific (51) and UC Santa Barbara (48) completed the top five. The Tigers received the only other first-place vote.
Cal Poly had 44 points, and Cal State Fullerton (34), UC Davis (18) and UC Riverside rounded out the field.
The Mustangs open the season at Cincinnati on Aug. 19.