Like many kids growing up in the Central San Joaquin Valley, Sierra Hyland spent plenty of vacation time in Pismo Beach.
The Visalia product’s oldest memory on the Central Coast is getting knocked down by an ocean wave at 6 years old, face first into the sand.
Despite that folly, she fell in love with San Luis Obispo County on continued regular trips. So, when the Cal Poly softball program came bearing a scholarship offer her junior year at El Diamante High, it was a natural fit for Hyland, a former Fresno Bee Player of the Year.
She also considered offers from Marshall, New Mexico State, Cal State Northridge and North Texas.
“I have my happy place,” Hyland said. “It’s Shell Beach. So, I like going there and just thinking, relaxing, spendingtime there.
“I thought it was close, too, so my family can come watch me.”
Hyland appears equally happy in the circle and at the plate for the Mustangs (7-9). The freshman is helping ignite hope that Cal Poly could once again compete for a Big West Conference title heading into this weekend’s home debut at the Mustang Classic after a string of down years.
Cal Poly opens play today at 2 p.m. against visiting Stony Brook, which features sophomore second baseman and Paso Robles High product Kellie Reynolds, then faces Fairleigh Dickinson at 4:30.
After leaving the CIF-Central Section with career numbers ranking in the top five all time in home runs (28, fourth), RBI (139, fifth), wins (101, second) and strikeouts (965, fourth),
Hyland has stepped right in to produce for the Mustangs.
She earned both pitcher and player of the week honors for the Big West two weeks ago after tossing Cal Poly’s first no-hitter in almost four years in a 4-0 win over Maryland and batted .417 over a six-game stretch.
Hyland is 3-2 in the circle, leading all Big West pitchers with 59 strikeouts and ranking third with a 2.83 ERA. She’s hitting .286 with two home runs and is tied for second on the team with seven RBI.
“We really believed she could help be a program-changer,” Cal Poly head coach Jenny Condon said. “Whether it was going to be her first year or down the road, she’s got the tools on both sides of the plate.
“There’s always that transition. You never know what you’re going to get. So, there’s definitely a learning curve, but it’s nice when you give up a home run, you can come to the plate and hit one.”
Concerns over that transition didn’t seem to last long. In the short time Hyland has been with the team — and working with new pitching coach Chelsey Barclay on the mental side of things in particular — she has made a big impression with teammates.
“She’s young,” senior centerfielder Lauren Moreno said, “but she’s really grown from the fall to now, and everybody can see it. She’s holding her own.
“I look at her as an upper classman now, and not from her stats but just her presence in the circle.”
There’s buzz that perhaps Hyland can help lead Cal Poly back to the top of the Big West, where the Mustangs haven’t been since winning conference titles and making back-to-back visits to the NCAA Regionals in 2009-10.
“I just wanted to contribute as much as I could,” Hyland said. “I felt even if I did have high stats in high school, I didn’t really pay attention to them. I’m just trying to do as much as I can to help our seniors and our team get a title.”
And it’s not all about Hyland.
Moreno is also off to a fantastic start, batting an astounding .652 when leading off an inning. The former Mt. San Antonio College transfer is batting .345 overall and ranks fourth in the Big West with 13 RBI. She has a team-high three home runs, including two in a 6-4 victory over then-No. 8 Oregon.
Emily Ceccacci is also breaking out. Spending most of her career with a batting average south of .250, the junior outfielder is hitting .382 this season, ranking ninth in the conference in batting and fifth in hits (21).
As a team, the Mustangs have already equaled their home run total from a year ago (9), and the victory over Oregon represents the
highest-ranked opponent Cal Poly has beaten since topping No. 2 Texas in 2008.
“It creates a lot of excitement,” Condon said. “When we went out and beat Oregon, it was great for us, and it was great for these returners to take their confidence to the next level. They’re buying in. It’s hard to believe it until you see it, and you can see it.”
Even a middling record represents an improvement over last season, when the Mustangs finished 19-34-1 and lost 13 of their final 16 games. Condon said this year’s team is stronger in every area. Moreno agreed, and one of the biggest changes might be attitude.
“It just seemed like last year, we were going through the motions,” Moreno said. “We played, and we played hard, but here we’re playing for each other, and it’s not about an individual thing. It’s not about stats. It’s just all about the team.
“You hear us loud in the dugout. If there’s a great play or a strikeout, we’re going to get loud and really pumped up for one another. If you hear a lot of talk, you know that we want to be there. We’re enthusiastic, and we have a great attitude.”