Cal Poly

New-look Cal Poly women’s basketball team set to open 2015-16 season

Senior Beth Balbierz, left, and junior Hannah Gilbert practice Wednesday to prepare for Friday’s season opener.
Senior Beth Balbierz, left, and junior Hannah Gilbert practice Wednesday to prepare for Friday’s season opener.

Hoping to benefit from a series of relatively drastic NCAA rule changes going into effect this winter, the Cal Poly women’s basketball team is doing its part to stay ahead of the curve.

Coming off a 15-14 season a year ago and a third-place finish in the Big West Conference, the Mustangs have implemented a new dribble-drive offensive system that longtime head coach Faith Mimnaugh believes will help the team become more efficient.

Cal Poly has spent the weeks leading up to its season opener developing an aggressive style with a goal of getting to the free-throw line more frequently. Some of the motivation behind that adjustment stems from the NCAA Women’s Basketball Rules Committee’s efforts to clean up the game and improve the fan experience.

Among the biggest changes will be 10-minute quarters replacing 20-minute halves, and teams will reach the double bonus and shoot two free throws on the fifth team foul within each quarter. Team fouls will reset to zero at the start of each period, and if a team reaches the bonus in the fourth quarter those fouls carry over to any ensuing overtimes.

“It’s very much a work in progress,” said Mimnaugh, now in her 19th season at Cal Poly. “But there’s strong commitment to trying to learn and get better every single day. I wish we were a little bit further at this stage of the game, but it’s going to come for us.”

The Mustangs have finished in the top three of the Big West standings for seven consecutive seasons, relying largely on standout perimeter shooting. One of the main focuses during the preseason has been making up for the loss of graduated senior Ariana Elegado, considered one of the best players in program history.

Elegado averaged 15.1 points, a Big West-leading 4.8 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game last season on the way to earning first-team all-conference honors for the second straight year. The Mustangs also graduated all-Big West performers Kristen Ale and Taryn Garza, two players who helped Cal Poly qualify for its first NCAA Tournament in school history in 2013.

“Honestly, we kind of felt like last year we didn’t reach our full potential,” senior point guard Lisa Marie Sanchez said. “This year, we’re a little closer as a team, so I think that’ll allow us to go a little further in our season and in our expectations.”

Starting lineup takes shape

Following practice Wednesday morning, Mimnaugh said the Mustangs have settled on a starting lineup for their season opener at 3 p.m. Friday against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

Sanchez will start at point guard and will be joined in the backcourt by senior Beth Balbierz, who has made 81 3-pointers in 87 career games.

Sophomore Lynn Leaupepe will start at the small forward position, with her twin sister, Dynn, a proven scorer and rebounder, likely to be one of the first players off the bench.

Junior forward Amanda Lovely will step into the starting lineup after redshirting last season following her transfer from Pepperdine. Fellow junior Hannah Gilbert, a 6-foot-3 standout from Morro Bay, is Cal Poly’s top returner offensively and will start at center.

A 29-game starter last season, Gilbert led the Big West in field-goal percentage by making 52.6 percent of her shots from the floor (122 for 232) and finished the year averaging 9.2 points and 5.8 rebounds.

Gilbert said she expects to see a more balanced team that will attack the basket and rely on its speed to outlast opponents.

“We’re always looking for that one more pass, which is critical for an offensive threat,” Gilbert said. “We’re really unselfish and we’re really smart about when to take the proper shot.”

Newcomers ready to compete

Three true freshmen joined Cal Poly this offseason: point guard Dye Stahley, shooting guard Breezi Holt and forward Katie Nunnelley.

Mimnaugh said the 5-foot-11 Holt was competing for a starting spot when she suffered a torn meniscus in her knee and will likely use a redshirt season to recover. Junior forward Rachel Koehler, another player “really in the mix for a starting spot” also tore her meniscus and the timetable for her recovery is unknown, Mimnaugh said.

Stahley, a gifted on-ball defender from Mesa, Ariz., will back up Sanchez at point guard and is “maybe one of our toughest defenders right now on the team.”

“She is such a ball hawk that she makes life tough for anybody who’s trying to bring the ball up,” Mimnaugh said. “She’s a lot of fun to watch.”

At 6-1, Nunnelley has been asked to learn both the power forward and center positions during practice. Mimnaugh acknowledged it’s a challenging undertaking for a freshman to learn two positions in a new system, but the Redding native has welcomed the extra work.

“Instinctually she’s really gifted,” Mimnaugh said. “Maybe one of the finest incoming freshmen that we’ve had. Maybe one of the most skilled freshmen that we’ve had.”

The combination of returners and talented newcomers has Balbierz excited.

“I feel like we could shock some people,” the fifth-year senior said. “We’re really young for the most part. Our experience might be lacking, but we have a lot of hard workers.

“I think we have high expectations of ourselves, and I think we have a lot of potential.”