After five years filled with unprecedented highs, the Kristina Santiago era is officially over for the Cal Poly women’s basketball team.
The big question is how the Mustangs will move on now that one of their best players of all time — one who helped elevate the program from the middle of the pack to the top of the Big West Conference — is playing professionally in Bulgaria.
Pre-Santiago, Cal Poly hadn’t experienced a winning season in its Division I history. Head coach Faith Mimnaugh had finished .500 twice, but the Mustangs were an annual also-ran in the Big West.
Santiago went on to be a two-time conference player of the year, the program’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder and led the program to its second regular-season Big West title.
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This season, it’s up more to an ensemble cast to replicate the production of Santiago, who averaged 23.4 points and 9.9 rebounds last year, and show Cal Poly can maintain its position as one of the top teams in the conference.
And the task begins today when a rigorous nonconference schedule starts with the season-opener at No. 23 Oklahoma State.
Kayla Griffin is the lone preseason honors candidate. After averaging 8.6 points per game and 6.6 rebounds per game, the senior guard was picked by the media for the All-Big West preseason team.
A former high school point guard, Griffin is much more of a facilitator than Santiago was, and she’ll rely on contributions from other returners to score points.
Junior guard Jonae Ervin averaged eight points per game last season but tore her ACL in the Big West Tournament semifinals. She is still out and could provide some relief by the end of December, Mimnaugh said.
Point guard duties are likely up to sophomore guard Ariana Elegado, who averaged five points in 30 games and 10 starts last season. Junior guard Caroline Reeves started 27 games last season, averaging 4.8 points.
Inside, the Mustangs have plenty of options to step in for Santiago. Most are either new to the level or backups who remained largely unproven playing behind the former Cal Poly great.
Modesto Junior College transfer Taryn Garza should contribute, Mimnaugh said, as will former Nevada transfer Brittany Woodard.
The center position will feature Molly Schlemer, a 6-foot-5 junior from Santa Maria, Australian true freshman Maddison Allen (6-4) and senior Nikol Alison, who has missed most of the past two seasons with chronic back injuries.
Showing a lack of confidence in the supporting cast to remain a favorite without Santiago, the media picked Cal Poly to drop to fourth in the preseason poll.
The Mustangs did receive one first-place vote but fell solidly behind Cal State Northridge, Pacific and UC Santa Barbara.
Cal Poly could find it tough coming into Big West play with a sparkling record.
In addition to the opener against the highly ranked Cowgirls, the Mustangs also play No. 13 Cal, fellow Pac-12 program Oregon State and San Diego, which finished second in the West Coast Conference last season.