Cal Poly

College Men's Basketball: Redshirts are biding their time

Cal Poly redshirt freshman Ryan Pembleton dunks in front of Ryan Darling, left, and Jordan Lewis during a practice recently at Mott Gym.
Cal Poly redshirt freshman Ryan Pembleton dunks in front of Ryan Darling, left, and Jordan Lewis during a practice recently at Mott Gym. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Amaurys Fermin was supposed to be the centerpiece of new recruits on Cal Poly men’s basketball coach Joe Callero’s first Mustangs team.

A failure to meet all of his entrance requirements during summer school, however, kept the junior college transfer from enrolling until the winter quarter, meaning he’d have to sit out this entire season.

The 6-foot-2 point guard from Bronx, N.Y., has been in San Luis Obispo since the start of January. So far, his only Division I college experience has been donning a black polo shirt for three Cal Poly home wins that were all determined by three points or less.

Fermin will be doing the same tonight when the Mustangs (8-11, 5-3 Big West Conference) take a break from conference play to host Cal State Bakersfield at 7.

“I could say it’s been hard on me watching and stuff,” said Fermin, who averaged 17.5 points and 8.2 assists last season at Hagerstown Community College, “but I’m kind of over that, looking forward to the future. I’m happy that I’m here and doing whatever I can to help the team to be successful.”

Much of the reason Fermin can say that with confidence is because he’s not alone.

Four other Callero recruits are also redshirting this season, and together they make up a talented scout team that leans on each other for support and gives the starters a unique challenge every day in practice.

“It definitely helps me because I have players that are in the same situation I’m in,” Fermin said. “It helps me get motivated and get going. If I was by myself doing that, there’s no telling how it would go.”

Freshmen Ben Eisenhardt and Ryan Pembleton, Division I transfers Chris O’Brien and Drake U’u and now Fermin and Will Donahue, the team’s center who has been academically ineligible since the end of December, make up a potent team that could compare favorably with the last six guys on any bench in the Big West.

“We call ourselves ‘Team Redshirt,’ ” said Pembleton, a 6-10, 205-pound center whose main goal this season is to bulk up for next year. “Sitting on the sidelines, it’s like, ‘Come on, Team Redshirt.’ ”

They were already pushing the Cal Poly regulars, and the addition of the 6-2 Fermin has made the scout team an even better simulation of what the Mustangs will see from their Big West opponents, Callero said.

“He just brings toughness,” O’Brien said. “He’s from New York, and I’ve seen in a couple practices, he’ll get in you, he’ll bully you, he’ll go by you, he’ll talk to you. He’s not dirty, but he lets you know he’s there. I’m excited to play with him. He’s strong, too, for his size and can also shoot. A lot of programs wanted him, and we were fortunate to land him.”

O’Brien, who sat out as a grayshirt for Princeton before averaging 4.1 points in nearly 21 minutes per game at San Francisco last season, is the most experienced of the group.

U’u, a Hartford transfer, missed a chunk of time last season with a broken foot and has been out all but four weeks of practice at Cal Poly tending to a sports hernia. U’u is scheduled to return to practice within the next couple weeks. Donahue, who has been appealing to get back onto the court, could also see some closure to his situation by that time. Until then, he’s helping the team in other ways.

“A lot of people see the five guys on the floor and then they see the three guys at the end of the bench clapping,” O’Brien said. “We do more than just clap for them. We’re in them every day. We go at them. Some guys don’t really think about it, but we know we’re just making them better every day because they’re making us better at the same time.”

Eisenhardt, a 6-10 vegetarian also charged with bulking up this year, potentially could have gotten plenty of playing time this year, especially after the loss of Donahue, but he said he’s glad Callero chose to maintain his redshirt.

He’ll be a much better player during that fifth year of eligibility, and like the rest, he understands how the redshirts are contributing to the unexpected success of a team that was picked to repeat its last-place finish in the Big West.

Said Callero: “Their games are their practices. So they have 40 minutes or an hour to play with a game-like intensity. It’s been very helpful because I’ve had teams in the past when you’ve had 14 or 15 on the team and your last three or four are maybe not as talented or as long. We’re definitely stronger and longer as you go to our scout squad.”

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