Longtime Cal Poly softball coach Jenny Condon believed for the past several years that her program was approaching a breakthrough season.
This spring, the 13th-year head coach’s vision has come to fruition in a major way.
Cal Poly owns the best record among Big West teams at 23-7, having won eight straight games and 17 of its past 18. The Mustangs defeated defending national champion and No. 9-ranked Oklahoma twice in two days at the Loyola Marymount Tournament over the weekend.
The latest in a string of strong performances propelled Cal Poly to its first national ranking since 2009, with the Mustangs coming in at No. 25 in this week’s NFCA Division I Top 25 Coaches Poll.
“That was one of their goals in the beginning of the year,” Condon said in a phone interview Tuesday morning. “It’s a coaches poll, and that means other teams across the country are noticing what we’re doing, and that’s exciting.”
The biggest shift Condon has seen from this year’s group is the ability to win close games. Cal Poly lost 16 one-run games in 2015 and six more in 2016. This season, the Mustangs are 7-4 in contests decided by one run.
Cal Poly’s dynamic pitching duo of senior Sierra Hyland and junior Lindsey Chalmers deserves much of the credit for the early-season success.
The highly decorated Hyland has spent the spring etching her name in the school and Big West record books. She tied the conference’s all-time career record for strikeouts (846) last weekend, and she will likely set a new mark when the Mustangs host Cal State Bakersfield in a doubleheader at 1 p.m. Saturday at Bob Janssen Field.
Hyland (13-5) collected her third consecutive Big West Pitcher of the Week honor Monday and already holds the conference’s all-time record for weekly honors in her career with 17.
On Tuesday, Hyland was then selected as the USA Softball Collegiate National Co-Player of the Week and the NFCA National Pitcher of the Week after going 4-0 with a 0.95 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings.
The senior right-hander leads the Big West in strikeouts (156), wins (13) and RBI (23), and she ranks second in ERA (1.00) behind only Chalmers.
“That’s been exciting for Sierra, and she deserves all the recognition and awards she’s gotten,” Condon said. “But Lindsey is doing a great job, as well. Those of us involved in the program know she’s not flying under the radar.
“She’s having a season of her lifetime, but so is Sierra.”
Chalmers (9-2) has allowed seven earned runs in more than 64 innings in the circle, giving her the lowest ERA in the conference at 0.76. The junior from San Ramon also ranks fourth in the Big West in wins and fifth in strikeouts (73).
The two veteran pitchers have helped Cal Poly hold its opponent to one run or less 18 times in 30 games this season, including 11 shutout victories.
The Mustangs own the best fielding percentage among the nine teams in the Big West and have committed the second fewest errors defensively.
Cal Poly ranks near the middle of the pack in most offensive categories, but there has been most consistent play throughout the batting order. Five Mustangs are hitting better than .315, led by sophomore Crimson Kaiser’s .380 average.
Still, Hyland continues to do the heavy lifting when it comes to run production.
She leads the team in hits (30), doubles (six) and RBI and carries a .333 batting average. Juniors Chelsea Convissar (.365, 27 hits, four doubles), Stephanie Heyward (.326, 28 hits, 11 RBI) and Amanda Sandoval (.265, 26 hits, six doubles) also have taken a step forward as upperclassmen this spring.
Condon said the 21-person roster is one of the largest she’s had in more than a decade at Cal Poly, and she’s been grateful to get many young players significant playing time leading up to the start of conference play next week.
“We’re building for this year and the success of this program,” Condon said, “but we’re also getting those kids opportunities so we can build a foundation and have our team be successful not only this year, but in years to come.”
Cal Poly Mustangs Softball
Record: 23-7 overall
Upcoming game: 1 p.m. Saturday vs. Cal State Bakersfield (doubleheader)
Big West Conference opener: 1 p.m. April 1 vs. UC Santa Barbara