The Cal Poly softball team’s best season in five years was bittersweet last spring.
Sure, the Mustangs clawed out of the doldrums to rejuvenate the program and birthed a star in freshman pitcher Sierra Hyland. The season ended, however, when Cal Poly suffered a one-run loss in the final series of the season.
It was that single defeat that denied the Mustangs a share of the Big West Conference title and the conference’s automatic berth to an NCAA regional.
That type of heartbreak can fuel an entire offseason and build motivation and momentum for the year ahead, especially for returning players vowing vengeance. A similar experience certainly spurred the Mustangs baseball team to the best season in school history last year.
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Except in the case of softball, only three starters return, including only a single senior, and following through on vows to capture the conference crown could depend on how well those returners can indoctrinate a group of eight freshmen that literally make up half the team.
“The expectation is to be one game better,” Cal Poly head coach Jenny Condon said. “I’d like to see the postseason, and that’s our goal, to win the conference and get to the postseason. The kids feel like that’s doable.
“I think we’ve got a little bit more depth and a little bit more power, but we’re young. That would be probably our Achilles’ heel, but these freshmen, they’ve got a good softball IQ. The game doesn’t scare them. They’re pretty confident in themselves, and that will take us a long way.”
This weekend, it takes them to Tempe, Ariz., where the Mustangs will face Creighton in the season-opener today. Before the Arizona State-hosted Kajikawa Classic is finished, though, Cal Poly will also have played BYU, Cal, Oregon State and No. 2-ranked Oregon.
Hyland has laid out the blueprint for freshman success.
She won the Big West Pitcher of the Year award after going 26-8 in the circle with a 1.94 ERA in 2014. She also led the team in hitting (.366), doubles (11), home runs (6), RBI (36) and slugging (.570).
Although she came from Visalia El Diamante High with a sparkling résumé, Hyland exceeded all expectations, and her advice to help her new teammates attempt the same is simple.
“Honestly, I just tell them not to think too much,” Hyland said. “Just kind of go with it and don’t over-think because that’s when you will mess up. If you’re thinking too much, you won’t be as smooth as when you’re relaxed. You don’t know what you’re re doing, but then again, you kind of do because you’re not thinking as much.”
The team’s second-leading hitter, left fielder Emily Ceccacci, is also back after a career year in which she batted .356 with 63 hits and four triples.
The lone senior, Ceccacci feels the urgency to win as much as anyone and is definitely feeding on the disappointing end to 2014.
“We were so close last year to getting that championship,” Ceccacci said. “I know we have eight freshmen, but I don’t care. We’re ready to take it, and I just hope I stay as consistent as I was last year.”
The other returning starter is Big West all-freshman honoree Courtney Tyler, who will start in right field. Tyler hit .292 last season and was third on the team in slugging (.415).
Freshman centerfielder Amanda Sandoval will complete the outfield. She may be unproven at the college level, but Sandoval was part of a proven winner in high school. Her sophomore season at Norco High ended with the Cougars ranked first in California by ESPN.
Fellow freshmen Lindsey Chalmers and Stephanie Heyward could also play big roles.
Chalmers should back up Hyland in the circle. She was the CIF-North Coast Player of the Year after going 15-4 with a 0.32 ERA last season at San Ramon California High.
Heyward, the cousin of new St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Jason Heyward, can also pitch and figures to play in the Mustangs’ infield as well.
Condon is confident in all aspects from pitching to hitting to defense. For now, much of that assurance can be taken only on her word. Cal Poly, however, will best tested well early on. Besides meeting Oregon, the Mustangs face No. 3 Alabama and No. 1 Florida before the end of the month and play twice against perennial power Stanford.
The all-new starting infield will be a work in progress to start the season, and that could lead to some inconsistency defensively, but the coach said it will not linger.
“I feel good about our defense,” Condon said. “I think we’re solid, but I know we’re going to make mistakes. That’s going to happen, and we’re going to play through them, but I don’t think we’ll continue to make them. We’ll make mistakes, and we’ll learn from them and move on from that.”