The Cal Poly softball team knows its road to an NCAA Regional is paved with a Big West Conference title.
This year, getting to that conference season with confidence intact has become the biggest challenge as the team struggles through a murderous early season schedule.
“We’re definitely better than our record indicates,” head coach Jenny Condon said. “Unfortunately, we’ve played every top-10, top-15, top-20 team in the country, so, when you look at it on paper, we don’t have the W’s, but we’ve been in those games.“We’ve just got to get some wins for their mental wellbeing.”
The Mustangs came close Sunday but ended up the victim of another top-25 caliber team — suffering back-to-back 4-1 and 2-0 losses to visiting Notre Dame (14-2) at Bob Janssen Field.
Earlier this season, Cal Poly (3-19) took Arizona State — ranked eighth in the latest NFCA coaches’ poll — to extra innings in a 6-5 loss. The Mustangs have had similar close calls with No. 5 Washington, No. 10 Oklahoma and hung with No. 9 UCLA in a 4-0 defeat.
Notre Dame received the fifth-most votes of any team not included in the top 25 this week, and the Mustangs had the Irish on the ropes late in the first game.
Cal Poly sophomore pitcher Rebecca Patton had a shutout and a one-run lead going into the sixth inning before giving up consecutive solo home runs, and the Irish scored runs on two fielder’s choice plays in the seventh.
Patton, who had the Mustangs’ only RBI on the day when she when she took a bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the first, did not give up a hit with a runner on base.
“We’re getting there,” said Patton, who is 1-11 with a 7.70 ERA. “At some point, we all kind of doubt ourselves. We all have confidence in each other, but we’re still getting used to this level of competition. Once it clicks, I think we’re going to be unstoppable. We’re just waiting to get to that point, and we’re working super hard in practice to get there.”
In the second game, Cal Poly sophomore starter Trista Thomas walked in two unearned runs with the bases loaded before senior Anna Cahn came on in relief to two-hit Notre Dame over the final 5 2⁄3 innings.
Cahn (1-6), two years ago the Big West Pitcher of the Year, lowered her season ERA 5.59.
Leading the team with eight home runs and 16 RBI, part of Cahn’s problems in the circle could be due to a right foot injury that has caused her discomfort in her pitching motion for the first time in her career.
“I’m not trying not to focus on it,” Cahn said. “I’m really just trying to focus on pitching, and today, I think I did a good job of that, but in the past, it’s been really painful. So, I’m just trying to deal with it.”
Condon said she expected better results from her pitching staff, which has combined to give up more than six runs per game. “That was disappointing out of the gates that our pitching struggled, and when you’re playing the 1-2-3-4 teams in the country, they’re going to capitalize on that,” Condon said. “When we have the walks and the home runs and the hit-by-pitches, the defense can’t help out with that.”
The schedule hardly lightens up the next couple weeks. Coming up is a four-game tournament at Stanford that culminates with a matchup with the No. 13 Cardinal, and just three days later, Cal Poly is in Los Angeles for two more against the Bruins.
The Mustang Classic, a home tournament against less-heralded competition, is the final competition before the Big West-opening series at UC Riverside on April 2.
“The only time we’ve gone postseason is when we’ve won the conference title outright,” Condon said, “so, that’s all that matters.“We’re getting the experience, and what doesn’t kill us will make us stronger. We have to keep believing in that, that there’s going to be a light at the end of the tunnel.”