Cal Poly

Clancy keeps Cal Poly on track

Rachel Clancy has put her overseas post-graduate studies on hold to play one final college basketball season for Cal Poly.
Rachel Clancy has put her overseas post-graduate studies on hold to play one final college basketball season for Cal Poly. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Her brother wants her to found the Irish FBI. Her parents would love to have her closer than an 11-hour plane ride. And the post-graduate programs of her dreams wait on the British Isles.

Rachel Clancy, however, has some unfinished business at Cal Poly, and despite a few twists of fate and one major twist of knee, the Mustangs women’s basketball team is helping her carry through on it.

Coming into this afternoon’s 4 p.m. game with visiting Cal State Northridge (1-17, 1-8 Big West Conference), Cal Poly (10-7) is 6-0 in conference play and has twice as many Big West wins as its next closest competitor.

Perhaps more notable is how Clancy — a Limerick, Ireland, native and a self-described homebody who reads forensic science textbooks in her spare time — has successfully gone from sidekick to centerpiece after reigning Big West Player of the Year Kristina Santiago suffered a season-ending ACL tear in the second minute of the season opener.

“I’d much prefer if ‘T’ were playing,” Clancy said of Santiago. “She’s a very good friend, and she’s obviously a really good player, but I feel like it was fate somehow. She got injured, but I’m here. I feel like it somehow worked out. If ‘T’ had gotten hurt and I wasn’t here, it might have somehow been worse for the program.”

In as close as Mustangs women’s basketball has gotten to its own Brett Favre story line, Clancy held out on committing to a return for the current season until she had time to reflect on last year’s premature ouster from the semifinals of the Big West Tournament.

Very much feeling her status as a foreigner through her first couple of collegiate seasons, which included a transfer from Duquesne and a redshirt year at Cal Poly, Clancy had always planned to return to Ireland after graduation.

Only after forming strong friendships did she realize that coming back as a master’s student for her final year of eligibility and shooting for the Mustangs’ first conference title and first berth in the NCAA Tournament alongside Santiago might be worth it.

Despite Santiago’s injury, Clancy has the Mustangs on track to make a run at those goals anyway.

‘She doesn’t miss’

In a way, Clancy was the perfect complement. Santiago is an efficient inside threat that demanded double teams. Clancy is a high-percentage spot-up shooter that only needed an arm’s length of separation to get up a 3-pointer.

One would draw the defense in; the other would make it pay.

It’s not really clear when Clancy became such a sharp shooter. She herself can’t really recall, but at some point in her basketball travels — from 61 international appearances with the now-defunct Irish women’s national team to playing AAU ball in Canada and the United States to Duquesne — Clancy and the phrase “she doesn’t miss” became synonymous.

Whereas the shot might have developed on talent initially, Clancy felt compelled to improve on it, if only just to keep up appearances. Every chance she gets, she shoots.

“I really like to focus on certain things and work really hard on that thing,” Clancy said. “I’m confident in games knowing I took that shot a thousand times during the week. I made that shot 50 times today.”

Clancy is averaging a career-high 16.6 points per game, which is second in the Big West behind only Mikah Maly-Karros of UC Irvine (19.1). Clancy is also third in the conference in 3-point percentage (41.9) and has made at least 15 more 3s than anyone else in the league.

Almost none of her shots come from inside the key, and Clancy still converts 45.1 percent from the field overall, good for seventh in the Big West.

“She really doesn’t miss,” Cal Poly sophomore Caroline Reeves said, “but she does so much for our team besides that.”

“Before each game, we’ll get into huddle and she goes over some things about guarding people and even some inspiring words.

“I know she’s thought about things a lot. What she says, it’s something that she’s contemplated.”

Confident decision maker

Santiago being sidelined was a shock to the entire team. The high hopes were seemingly dashed the second she hit the floor at Seattle.

Immediately, Clancy and fellow senior Desiray Johnston displayed unaffected facades, and Clancy became more vocal. “I’m more willing to call people out in a good way,” Clancy said. “I can say, ‘You need to box out right now or we’re going to lose this game.’ I’m a lot more confident.”

That wasn’t the case early on in her career, when the player who’d rather stay in to watch movies and eat chocolate and California Pizza Kitchen leftovers than go out to a party had yet to endear herself to teammates.

Now, those teammates are just as responsible for her current obsession as anyone else.

Clancy has always been a science whiz. She won a prestigious national award in Ireland growing up and graduated Magna Cum Laude from Cal Poly with a degree in biological sciences.

But it wasn’t until teammates got her hooked on “cheesy shows” like “Law & Order: SVU” that she started leaning toward criminal investigation as a way to apply her scientific knowledge.

Junior center Abby Bloetscher introduced Clancy to “Criminal Minds,” a fictional drama starring Joe Mantegna and Thomas Gibson that follows the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit.

Some research found that only U.S. citizens can join the FBI, and there is no current equivalent in Ireland.

“I don’t think we’re big enough,” Clancy said. “There’s crime, but there’s not that big of a demand.”

She still may pursue a career in criminal justice.

Yet to choose, Clancy has postgraduate programs waiting in Dublin and London, the latter being a specialization in forensics.

Along with the desire to be closer to parents Damien and Sheila and older brother David, 26, the master’s programs were part of the pull for her to leave San Luis Obispo last year, but she’s gone the Favre route there, too, and will likely continue holding off on commitment.

“I change my mind a lot,” Clancy said. “If I make a decision, I’m very happy with changing it because in the past it’s always worked out for me. I never make the wrong decision, but whatever one I make, I’m always happy to make the better one afterwards.”

Leading the Big West

Cal Poly struggled through a tough nonconference schedule that was supposed to be a showcase for Santiago, who has aspirations of playing overseas and possibly in the WNBA.

Including lopsided losses at Illinois and Pepperdine, the Mustangs started 4-7 as they worked through forging a new identity without their star.

But the hot start to conference has rejuvenated hopes that this could be the year for head coach Faith Mimnaugh, who is in her 14th season guiding the program.

Clancy hasn’t been the only Cal Poly player to step up. Kayla Griffin, Ashlee Burns, Jonae Ervin, Bloetscher and Reeves are all having breakthrough seasons with upgrades in playing time.

Cal Poly leads the Big West in scoring (74.2 points per game) and is averaging almost 15 more points than second-place UC Davis.

The Mustangs also lead the conference in field goal percentage (44.4), 3-point percentage (41.3), assists per game (16.8) and average attendance (577).

The success of the team and of Clancy has led to the next question, whether she’ll be willing to put a promising career in science on hold to extend her basketball playing days once more.

She doesn’t get the feeling that the under-funded Irish national team will be making a return anytime soon, but Clancy said she has gotten an e-mail from a European agent.

When the time comes, will she answer it?

“I feel like this is my pro year, like my year after college,” Clancy said. “Wherever I go to live, I might play for fun. But I don’t think I’ll play pro.”

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