Cal Poly

Internship with WNBA’s Sparks convinces Elegado to return to Cal Poly

Cal Poly’s Ariana Elegado, right, looks to the basket against Hawaii’s Ashleigh Karaitiana during a Big West Conference Tournament semifinal game in Anaheim in March.
Cal Poly’s Ariana Elegado, right, looks to the basket against Hawaii’s Ashleigh Karaitiana during a Big West Conference Tournament semifinal game in Anaheim in March.

Not a single person told Ariana Elegado to leave Cal Poly with eligibility left.

But like many recent graduates, career options understandably torment the Mustangs women’s basketball standout. Everyone wanted Elegado back in school. She was the lone soul worried that a return to the court could cost her time and opportunities in the world of professional sports management.

Only when she stepped into that realm through a marketing internship with the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks this summer did she find out for sure, work can wait a while. Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh wasn’t the only one saying so. Her WNBA bosses chimed in, too.

“They also told me to come back,” said Elegado, who made the decision to return for a fifth-year senior season with the Mustangs on Sunday. “They said, ‘Don’t worry about it. You met us. You made connections.’ I already kind of know the sports industry here in L.A.”

When she made the phone call, Elegado said Mimnaugh screamed in rejoice for a good two minutes. Mimnaugh copped to whooping and hollering. Why not? The decision had been a year in the making, and the return of its leading scorer (17 points per game) and all-conference honoree makes Cal Poly an instant Big West Conference contender in the minds of many.

Coming into the year, Elegado ranks eighth in program history in career scoring (1,065 points) and is also 63 assists shy of No. 2 in program history. Her 86 3-pointers last year were the sixth most in Big West history, and her 4.5 assists per game tied for the conference lead. And her future truly was unclear all this time.

“I really didn’t know as the season progressed and the springtime progressed,” Mimnaugh said. “I would get different varying percentages of her coming back. It wasn’t looking good. “I asked her in April what her percentages were for coming back, and it was something like 70 percent that she wasn’t coming back, and that’s not a good percentage for me.”

Even though she graduated with a bachelor’s degree this year, Elegado had the option of returning for another season of basketball because she redshirted one year with an injury. All she had to do in her mind was get an internship and be accepted into a master’s program at Cal Poly. She also considered graduate schools at universities with more established sports management departments, but she wouldn’t have played basketball at those schools.

No, Elegado said she felt as if God was guiding her back to the Mustangs. Every what-if scenario blocking her return evaporated over the offseason. Then there was the matter of her tearful final game.

Shooting just 33 percent from the floor, Cal Poly laid an egg in a 73-58 Big West Tournament title-game loss to Cal State Northridge.

Elegado scored a team-high 23, including a flurry of five 3-pointers to cut a 20-point deficit to six by the final five minutes, but close still felt like failure.

The loss denied the Mustangs a second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament after securing the program’s first berth the previous year. Elegado said she’s watched the game film at least 50 times.

“Every time I watch it,” Elegado said, “it just makes me feel like, ‘Man, I wish I could play again. I could have done this; I could have done that.’

“I’m thirsty for another championship.”

Despite losing former Big West Player of the Year Molly Schlemer at center, all-time program assists leader Jonae Ervin at point guard and pesky defender Nwamaka Ofodu from the starting lineup, the prospect of another title isn’t far-fetched.

Cal Poly loses height with the subtraction of the 6-foot-5 Schlemer, but, Mimnaugh said, the newcomers will make the Mustangs a more versatile defensive team.

Junior college transfer Lisa Marie Sanchez of state champion Ventura College is vying for a starting spot. So are returning seniors Kristen Ale and Taryn Garza. Sophomore Hannah Gilbert of Morro Bay and incoming freshman Nicole Fausey are battling to replace Schlemer in the post.

Camarillo High twins Geralynn and Geraldynn Leupepe could both easily start, Mimnaugh said. Incoming freshman point guard Zonyia Cormier has impressed in summer workouts as well.

That largely inexperienced group is now bolstered by one of the best players Mimnaugh has ever coached.

“This might put us in position where we could be one of the top teams,” Mimnaugh said. “Somebody that has that type of experience is invaluable. She is a gamer. She comes up huge. She makes a ton of plays.”