The Mustangs’ investment already has started paying off in the form of a 24-win nonconference season that included a pair of victories over defending national champion Oklahoma.
Now, a new chapter begins at 1 p.m. Saturday when Cal Poly (24-8) hosts rival UC Santa Barbara in the Big West opener for both teams at Bob Janssen Field. The two teams will play a doubleheader Saturday with the series finale to follow at 1 p.m. Sunday.
“The preseason heading into conference was successful for us,” head coach Jenny Condon said last week. “We got to see a lot. Our players did a great job. Our pitching has been great all season.”
That might be an understatement.
Senior Sierra Hyland has piled up individual awards at a remarkable pace, most notably last weekend when she became the Big West’s all-time career strikeouts leader. Hyland leads the conference in ERA (0.99), strikeouts (169) and wins (14), and she’s second in RBI with 24.
Her counterpart, junior Lindsey Chalmers, is 9-3 with a 1.70 ERA and has recorded 81 strikeouts in 70 innings in the circle.
“I think we’re in a good spot,” Hyland said. “We fought through the winter, and we had a good preseason.”
Five Mustangs are batting over .320, led by sophomore Crimson Kaiser’s .414 average. She went a combined 5-for-8 with three RBI and two runs against Cal State Bakersfield last Saturday.
UC Santa Barbara (18-15) swept Cal Poly in the Big West opening series last season, and it enters Saturday’s contest having won six of the last seven games.
Here is a look at where the other eight Big West teams stand heading into conference play:
The Rainbow Warriors are enjoying a resurgent 2017 season, having nearly matched their win total from last spring. They opened the year with a 27-game home stand and have had a 13-day break leading up to the start of conference play. Hawaii’s pitching duo of Dana Thomsen and Brittany Hitchcock each own an ERA well under 2.00.
All-American Taylor Glover is making her final lap through the Big West. The senior outfielder leads the conference in batting average (.429) and RBI (26), and she ranks third in stolen bases (12) this season. The Matadors are the only Big West team with a collective batting average above .300, and they’ve hit a conference-best 35 home runs in 29 games.
UC Riverside (18-11)
The Highlanders posted a 17-4 record on their home field during the nonconference portion of the season and will host defending Big West champion Cal State Fullerton on Saturday. Senior outfielder Madeline Richard won the Big West batting title last year, and she’s currently hitting .333 with a conference-high 18 stolen bases.
UC Santa Barbara (18-15)
After starting the year 4-10, the Gauchos have won 14 of their last 19 games heading into conference play. Freshman Alyssa Diaz has made a quick transition to the college game — 14 of her 26 hits have gone for extra bases — and she has driven in a team-high 22 runs. Sophomore Sierra Altmeyer is batting .358 and leads the Big West with seven home runs.
Cal State Fullerton (17-15)
The Titans captured their first Big West championship since 2006 last spring, and they were picked to repeat this year in the preseason coaches poll. Senior pitcher Kelsey Kessler has been the anchor defensively, going 10-5 with a 1.78 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 102 innings in the circle. Cal State Fullerton has won three straight games and seven of their last nine overall.
UC Davis (15-17)
Without much power at the plate, the Aggies have to make the most of their opportunities when they get on base. Enter Taylor Peters and Briana Warner. The two teammates have combined for 73 hits and 30 stolen bases this season, the highest combined number of steals by teammates in the Big West. UC Davis brings a seven-game winning streak into the conference opener.
Long Beach State (12-18-1)
Things haven’t gone according to plan for a 49ers team that was picked to finish second in the conference. Long Beach State ranks last in the Big West in batting average, runs, hits, doubles, RBI and stolen bases. Two-time first-team all-Big West pitcher Christina Clermont has struggled in her senior season. She’s 6-6 with a 3.41 ERA and has recorded 57 strikeouts against 55 walks in 88 1/3 innings.