Cal Poly softball standout Sierra Hyland could have a new wrinkle in her pitching arsenal this season, and that should be a startling thought for opposing hitters each time they step in the batter’s box.
Already one of the most decorated players in program history, the senior right-handed pitcher is eager to make up for lost time after a fractured bone in her throwing hand forced Hyland to miss a significant chunk of the Mustangs’ 2016 season.
Now back and healthy, Hyland’s crooked pinky finger on her right hand serves as a constant reminder to appreciate the daily grind of her final collegiate season, which begins in earnest at 9 a.m. Friday when Cal Poly takes on Purdue at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Arizona.
“It’s not straight,” Hyland said before practice this week, “but it’s actually kind of cool because it curves on the ball, so it kind of fits the ball perfectly.”
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Hyland enters her senior campaign with 690 career strikeouts, needing 107 more to break the program record and 157 more to become the Big West Conference’s all-time leader in that category.
Her résumé is as impressive as any player to put on a Cal Poly uniform, which includes three consecutive NFCA all-region selections, three no-hitters and a perfect game to her credit.
But when Hyland — also one of Cal Poly’s most productive hitters — was sidelined last spring, her absence opened the door for Lindsey Chalmers to become the Mustangs’ go-to pitcher.
The 5-foot-9 Chalmers went on to start 22 games and posted a 10-11 overall record. Known more as a ground-ball pitcher with consistent movement on each of her pitches, Chalmers gives opponents a different look in the circle compared with the hard-throwing Hyland.
“Having that for teams to see the difference, it’ll be really good this year,” said Chalmers, a junior right-hander.
It’s an exciting combination for 13th-year head coach Jenny Condon to work with.
“I think Sierra and Lindsey complement each other so well,” said Condon, adding Chalmers’ overall record last season was hindered by a lack of run production offensively.
That’s something Condon said has been a key focus during offseason workouts.
Though Cal Poly owned the best earned run average (1.48) in the Big West a year ago, it also ranked last in runs (40), home runs (two), RBI (37) and was sixth in team batting average (.236) during the 21-game conference schedule.
With five of their top six hitters returning from last season, Condon believes the Mustangs can take the next step offensively this spring. It will start with dynamic leadoff hitter Stephanie Heyward, who posted a .390 batting average as a sophomore last year, the fourth-highest single season mark in program history.
Heyward also will help anchor a more experienced infield that also includes shortstop Chelsea Convissar, second baseman Ashley Tornio, first baseman Megan Nordin and catcher Makenna Young.
Junior Amanda Sandoval, who has started all 100 games of her career in center field, also returns, along with senior standout Courtney Tyler in left. Condon said this week she had not yet chosen a starter in right field, noting there’s an ongoing competition for that spot.
“I think we’ve always been really confident on defense — defense wins championships, as they say — but I do think that we’re ready to step up our offensive game,” said Sandoval, who was selected to play for the Mexico Women’s National Team over the summer. “All of us have been a lot more disciplined at the plate for sure.”
Cal Poly also has a six-person freshmen class to incorporate before Big West play opens April 1.
Condon said both pitchers, Steffi Best and Shelby Jeffries, will compete for innings, and there will be plenty to go around as the Mustangs are scheduled to play in tournaments for five consecutive weeks to open the season.
“The mindset is completely different than what it has been in the past,” Hyland said. “I feel like we’re definitely ready this year compared to any other year. We’ve taken way more reps and extras in hitting, pitching, fielding, whatever possible just to get that one step better.”
Cal Poly softball at a glance
Head coach: Jenny Condon, 13th season
Last year: 27-23 overall, 10-11 Big West (fifth)
Top returners: RHP Sierra Hyland, INF Stephanie Heyward, OF Amanda Sandoval
Key losses: INF Breana West, OF Betsy Colburn
Noteworthy: Cal Poly’s 1.48 team ERA was the best in the Big West last season