The Cal Poly women’s basketball team was having its injury problems well before the eve of tonight’s season opener at Oregon State.
Candidates to replace departed senior leaders Megan Harrison and Lisa McBride were going down left and right.
And now the Mustangs’ Big West Conference Player of the Year candidate, junior forward Kristina Santiago — who was expected to carry much of the scoring load — is having back trouble.
Santiago will play against the Beavers, Mimnaugh said, but at least some of the expectations of following up a big breakthrough season for the program with another big year have to be tempered with the former Righetti High standout hobbling.
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“We are trying to talk about what we have, not what we don’t have, and keep focus on trying to improve 1 percent each day,” said Mimnaugh, who guided the team to its first winning season during her 12-year tenure last year and was one game away from the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance.
“We have major challenges in there, but we have a very fine team and we’re learning to play together.”
Also hurting are 6-foot-3 sophomore center Abby Bloetscher, San Jose State transfer and former Santa Ynez High standout Christine Martin, 6-foot sophomore forward Colleen Garrett and senior point guard Tamara Wells, among others.
It’s far from the first season Mimnaugh’s Mustangs have been dogged by injuries. Several of the coach’s key players have gone down throughout the years.
Last season was one of the few where Cal Poly was able to stay relatively healthy, and the Mustangs marched all the way to the Big West Tournament championship game before falling to conference regular-season champion UC Santa Barbara.
Cal Poly led the Gauchos by as many as 15 points in that championships game before losing to fall to 21-11, a mark that tied the program record for most wins in a season.
Harrison and McBride were huge reasons why the season was such a success. The duo combined to average more than 24 points per game. Harrison was a versatile scorer who got to the free-throw line with regularity, and McBride was the best percentage 3-point shooter in the conference.
Mimnaugh said Martin, who redshirted last season, has a similar offensive game to Harrison because the 5-11 forward can score from inside or outside. And junior guard Rachel Clancy shot 45.8 percent from the field last season, including a 44.9 percent from 3-point range.
Senior point guard Ashlee Stewart, senior guard Brittany (Asplund) Lange, sophomore guard Ashlee Burns and freshman guard Jonae Ervin are also expected to make impacts offensively.
But what the team might miss the most from its departed seniors will be what they did without the ball. Harrison and McBride were the team’s top two rebounders and routinely drew the two toughest defensive assignments.
Now, Mimnaugh will have to count on Santiago, 6-1, and 6-0 senior Becky Tratter for post defense. Though strong, Tratter is short for her position, and Santiago, though she was third in the Big West with 15.3 points per game, ranked outside of the conference’s top 10 in rebounds.
The lack of height down low, at least until Bloetscher returns, could mean more trouble defensively for Cal Poly than anything else and it may mean Mimnaugh might have to go away from her preferred man-to-man defense, particularly in the event of foul trouble.
“Las year, I didn’t even put in a zone until late in the season,” Mimnaugh said. “We may play it a little bit more this year because we might have to hide Tratter and Santiago in the post.”