Jenny Condon called this season the perfect storm.
The Cal Poly head softball coach has seen a mountain of losses largely confound a rotation filled with freshmen, while the Mustangs’ best player was weighed down by a foot injury.
Even Condon got swept up in the destruction, injuring her foot in an on-field accident, coaching Cal Poly’s final series of the season in a walking boot and going into today’s season finale one victory short of 200 for her Mustangs career.
Cal Poly twice took visiting Pacific to extra innings in Friday’s doubleheader — once erasing a four-run deficit with a seventh-inning rally — but in step with the rest of the season, the Mustangs lost 6-4 in 10 innings and 9-8 in eight.
The Tigers clinched their first Big West title and the conference’s only automatic NCAA postseason berth.
Long out of contention, Cal Poly (10-36, 6-14 Big West) fell to 1-3 on the season in extra-inning games. Pacific (37-16, 16-4 Big West) improved to 7-0 in extra-inning games.
Similar to the Mustangs’ early-season 6-5 eight-inning loss to Arizona State — which currently sits at No. 1 in the country in both polls — Cal Poly proved it could hang with a championship-caliber team, but all that stands to be remembered are outcomes of defeat.
That’s life on the razor’s edge. The big question is whether the Mustangs can fall on the positive side of it next season with a roster that will be largely unchanged.
“I see some really good seasons and some really great players,” said Cal Poly senior Anna Cahn, who’s had an MVP-like season at the plate but struggled in the pitching circle. “Personally, it took me some time to get used to college and not just the softball, but school and life and everything. It’s a learning year or two, and I think that they’re going to be a really great team next year and the year after that.”
Five true freshmen have appeared in at least 39 of Cal Poly’s 46 games so far this season. For them, it was truly a learning experience.
The Mustangs lost seven of their first eight games and only won two of their first 19, 12 of which were against nationally ranked opposition.
“We got hammered with top-14 and top-15 teams,” Condon said, “and our freshmen kind of got shell-shocked and realized, ‘Oh, this is hard.’ I think if we had taken a couple of those early on, it would be a completely different season. But I think that their confidence got the best of them, and they started questioning. We struggled in the circle, we struggled defensively and we struggled at the plate.”
While younger players tried to adapt to a higher level, the Mustangs’ two seniors, Cahn and catcher Stephanie Correia, attempted to lead the team to overall success in their final year.
The duo has combined for 53 RBI (46 percent of the team’s total), and Cahn continued her prolific career at the plate.
Cahn ranks in the top three in six of Cal Poly’s career offensive categories. She shattered the record for career walks, led the conference in walks each of the past two seasons and still tied the single-season school record with 14 home runs this year.
“We’ve really struggled in front of her and behind her,” Condon said, “and when you don’t get that protection, every team comes in and says, ‘Don’t let her beat us. Don’t let Cahn beat us.’ It’s a compliment, but it’s also frustrating. She got, what, only a couple good pitches to hit today?”
As a team, the Mustangs are batting just .232, and only Cahn (.318) and junior outfielder Nora Sobczack (.311) are hitting better than .272.
The woes also extend beyond the plate.
Cal Poly has given up 77 more runs this season than it did last year, and the team ERA is nearly three full runs higher than it was when the Mustangs went to an NCAA Regional in 2009 and Cahn was the Big West Pitcher of the Year.
Cahn has been bothered by a right foot injury since the second week of the season. It’s caused the left-hander pain in her plant foot on every pitch since she hurt it.
Cahn has a team-high 4.85 ERA and a career-worst 1-12 record but declined to lean on the injury as an excuse for her down year.
“I’d say to a degree,” Cahn said, “but I also think it’s a team effort. It’s not just me. It’s not just Steph or anybody. It’s just been a really rough year. We have 14 underclassmen, so that’s a big factor as well, just getting experience. There are a lot of different factors in what happened this year.”
A large chunk of the offense leaves with Cahn and Correia, two four-year starters. Junior outfielder Nicole Lund is third on the team with 20 RBI, and Rebecca Patton (11) is the only other player on the team with more than six RBI.
Lund came up with big plays to score the tying runs in the seventh inning of Friday’s first game and the go-ahead runs in the bottom of the sixth in Game 2.
Condon knows that she’ll need other players to develop for Cal Poly to turn things around, something Lund believes is a definite possibility.“I’m excited for next year, because obviously we’re only losing two, that’s how I’m looking at it,” Lund said. “Most of our freshmen did start a lot of the games. That’s really good going into next season.”