Jonae Ervin has seen the end of four seasons with the Cal Poly women’s basketball team.
And the culmination of last season was unlike any other not only for the fifth-year senior point guard but for 17th-year head coach Faith Mimnaugh and the Cal Poly program as a whole.
After years of knocking on the door, Cal Poly finally earned its first NCAA Division I basketball tournament berth.
It ended with an 85-55 first-round loss No. 3 seed Penn State, but it was the beginning of a renewed desire to take advantage of an opportunity for a return trip.
“We were still proud of our team, and we know we can make it again this year,” Ervin said. “We just have to put in that extra work, and it started the day after we lost that tournament game.”
Heading into Friday’s 3:30 p.m. season opener against Duquesne in the DePaul-hosted Maggie Dixon Classic, Cal Poly returns reigning Big West Conference Player of the Year Molly Schlemer, second-leading scorer Ariana Elegado and Ervin, a former national leader in assist-to-turnover ratio who is also a scoring threat.
With such dynamic pieces back from a team that tied the program record with 21 victories, it’s no wonder the Mustangs were picked to win the conference title in the preseason media poll. Cal Poly has won the past four Player of the Year awards.
After losing Kristina Santiago prior to last season, there weren’t high expectations that Schlemer and company could contend for another title.
Schlemer battled with a chip on her shoulder dating back to prep award snubs at Righetti High, and that underdog mentality shouldn’t persist.
“There’s more pressure to it of course,” said Schlemer, who averaged 13.3 points and 7.1 rebounds last season, “but also you want to back up what people think positively of you. There’s a really big X on my back and a really big X on the team’s back. So, people are coming for our heads.
“The key is just doing what I did last year. ... just knowing that I can do it and knowing that I’ve done it before, so, I can do it again.”
But there are holes to fill, and the Mustangs are still in transition heading into a nonconference event in Chicago, Mimnaugh’s home town.
The seniors lost from last season’s team might not have been considered stars, but the intangibles and leadership they brought will be hard to replace.
Kayla Griffin was a three-year starter that provided a calming influence on the court and helped spearhead the defense. Nikoll Allison was the first person off the bench and was a capable backup to Schlemer. Caroline Reeves was a multi-year starter versatile enough to play multiple positions. Brittany Woodard was blossoming into a potential team MVP before tearing her ACL in midseason.
Cal Poly also lost six-year assistant and associate head coach Kerri Nakamoto, who left to become the head coach at Division II Cal State Monterey Bay in the offseason.
Griffin is back with the team providing guidance as a student assistant, and Nakamoto was replaced by former Washington standout Mackenzie Argens, one of the Huskies’ top career rebounders and shot-
blockers and who figures to improve the defense of Schlemer and others.
As for replacing minutes on the court, Mimnaugh will have to watch as things play out in the coming weeks.
Taryn Garza, a former junior college transfer who began her career at Pacific, figures to take an increased role in the frontcourt as a physical defender. She will he joined on the front line by Australian sophomore Maddison Allen, who missed most of last season with a hand injury but whom Mimnaugh already says might be the best post defender she’s ever coached.
Outside shooter and ball-handler Kristen Ale figures to be the first guard off the bench, and 6-foot freshman guard Sarah Lipton could move into the role filled by Griffin as a 3-point shooter and passer.
Former Morro Bay standout Hannah Gilbert and Atascadero High product Mary Kate Evans are also freshmen this season. The 6-foot-3 Gilbert is being groomed to replace Schlemer at center, but Mimnaugh is considering playing both on the floor at the same time.
Also returning are role players Beth Balbierz, Nwamaka Ofodu and Caroline Hughes.
Aside from Schlemer, Elegado and Ervin, the rest of the pieces will start to become clearer with the matchup against Duquesne and the following game against either DePaul or Harvard.
Cal Poly has another tough test at Stanford on Nov. 15 before a stretch of six games of which all but one will be played at Mott Athletics Center. The Mustangs open their home schedule against New Mexico State on Nov. 18 and will also host Nevada, Akron, San Francisco and CSU Bakersfield.
“Hopefully that will forge some fight in us,” Mimnaugh said, “figure out what we are and what we can do as a team. Having an identity is still something that we’re lacking, but we have a lot of history of what we’ve been in the past and what we want to be. We’re not there yet, but hopefully our team will buy in and show some really good progress.”