No player better represents this season’s Cal Poly men’s basketball team than fifth-year senior Ryan Darling.
Overlooked. Underhyped. An afterthought.
Few could predict the Mustangs (6-10, 3-2 Big West Conference), which host last-place UC Riverside (7-10, 1-4 Big West) tonight at 7, would be in a three-team cluster tied for third in the conference standings nearly a third of the way through Big West play.
Perhaps fewer expected Darling — a walk-on who was twice cut from the team and worked his way onto the roster only after serving a season as team manager — to be any kind of a force.
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But now, with help from Darling’s infectious positivity and improving play on the court, Cal Poly is contending in a season in which the Mustangs were picked to repeat their last-place finish from a year ago.
His story is harmonic with a rally cry now being adopted by the entire team.
“In Dar’s position, he’s like the underdog,” said senior guard Lorenzo Keeler, who leads the Mustangs with more than 15 points per game. “Nobody really expected too much of him, but he enjoys that. Right now, he’s showing the fans, he’s showing everybody what he can do.
“And it makes the win that much better at the end of the day when you’re not expected to win and you come out and get a win. It just feels that much better.”
Darling, a 6-foot-8, 215-pound forward from Tehachapi, got the first start of his career in a 90-79 win Saturday at Long Beach State, the preseason pick to be conference champion.
Darling also had his first double-double in a 72-69 home win over UC Davis the week prior. His 10 points in that game were just two fewer than he’d scored in his entire career combined.
Darling might only be getting this chance to shine because starting center Will Donahue is sidelined with academic issues, but the Mustangs rallied around their most popular player after his breakout game because everyone realized it was a long time coming.
“You feel good for him when he has success,” Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero said, “because you know how long he chopped wood just to get a chance to build one fire one day, to get five minutes in one game, let alone 20 minutes and the key shots and the key blocks down the stretch.”
Three years ago, Darling was doing the work of a team manager, handing out towels, filling up water bottles and shooting video from the stands.
With just two seasons of high school basketball to his credit, the skinny kid who viewed himself more as a hockey player growing up just needed any way onto the team he could get.
Former Cal Poly head coach Kevin Bromley said he gave Darling a chance, seeing he had the athletic ability to play at the Division I level but lacked experience.
Darling said he never thought of quitting after he was cut from the team a second time.
The hardest part, he said, was wheeling out the container of basketballs every day for practice, knowing he couldn’t participate.
“I never felt like there was disrespect,” Darling said, “but at the same time, I never felt like I was riding a high horse cleaning up the sweat after Titus (Shelton) took a charge under the basket.”
The next season was Darling’s first on the team. Priding himself on bringing activity and energy where he lacked experience, Darling worked on something new every year and steadily improved his game.
When Callero took over this offseason, the coach did not expect the little-used big man to be much more than a practice player. Now, Callero realizes he’ll be losing much more after Darling graduates with a business administration degree this spring.
The positive attitude that helped him persevere through more than four years of being the afterthought has an undefined value.
No one can remember Darling ever being angry. He smiles at Callero while the coach is chewing him out. And he’s up off the bench yelling every time one of his teammates even sniffs a chance to dunk.
Maybe Darling is just now contributing on the court, but he always has been off it.
“Really what is there to ever be sad or pessimistic about,” Darling said. “I go to an amazing school. I’m surrounded by my family that I love, and my teammates are like my family. I’m playing basketball, something I love to do.
“If you could say you could be anywhere else, be Brad Pitt for a day, I would choose to be here playing basketball at Cal Poly.”