There might not be a player in the Big West Conference who’s more important to her team’s success than Cal Poly’s Sierra Hyland.
Perhaps that’s why the Mustangs can look back on an uneven 2016 campaign as a missed opportunity, wondering what could have been had the dynamic junior stayed healthy.
Hyland, the 2014 Big West Pitcher of the Year and a three-time NFCA All-Region selection, fractured a bone in her throwing hand during a nonconference loss to Ohio State in March.
When the 5-foot-5 junior from Visalia went down, Cal Poly was 16-8 overall with wins over Pac-12 opponents Oregon State, Stanford and a top-10 Arizona team to its credit.
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What followed was a 10-game losing streak, including an 0-5 start in conference play.
“The impact she me made on the psyche of the players really did hurt us,” head coach Jenny Condon said. “If you looked at our stats offensively, our team batting average went down every week from the time she got hurt until the end.”
Hyland’s impact on the Mustangs is two-fold.
The first-team all-conference performer led the Big West and ranked eighth nationally with a 1.19 ERA. Though she made a career-low 21 starts in the circle, Hyland still recorded the second-most strikeouts in the Big West (194), one short of Long Beach State’s 32-game starter Christina Clermont.
Offensively, Hyland carried a .336 batting average and led Cal Poly with nine doubles, three home runs and 29 runs driven in.
According to Condon, taking Hyland’s bat out of the lineup proved to be more troublesome than losing her in the circle. The 12th-year head coach praised sophomores Lindsey Chalmers and Stephanie Heyward for shouldering the extra innings while Hyland recovered.
“Lindsey grinded it out every day,” Condon said. “When Sierra went down, Lindsey was our go-to. She really learned to embrace that role as our ace pitcher, and she deserved it.”
Chalmers finished the season 10-11 overall with 71 strikeouts and a 3.27 ERA, earning honorable mention all-conference recognition. Hyland eventually returned to the circle and made her first start since the injury on April 24 against CSUN. She owned a 5-3 record in her final eight decisions.
For all the recognition Hyland receives, Condon felt equally strong about the consistently high play of Heyward.
The sophomore from Sacramento held the highest batting average on the team (.390) for the second year in a row and ranked fourth among Big West competitors in that category. Heyward, a first-team all-conference selection, also led the Mustangs in at-bats (159), runs (31), hits (62), triples (four) and on-base percentage (.452).
“We’re so excited to see what her future holds,” Condon said. “I know it’s been a lot about Sierra, but Stephanie Heyward has done some really good things for this program, and I know she will continue to do that.”
Cal Poly will need to replace graduating seniors Breana West and Betsy Colburn this offseason.
West, an honorable-mention performer, played in 148 games over the past three seasons and hit .247 as the every-day first baseman.
Colburn proved to be a standout defensive outfielder, alongside Amanda Sandoval and Courtney Tyler, and set career highs in at-bats (124), hits (28) and doubles (eight) this season.
Aside from those departures, the Mustangs should return six freshmen, seven sophomores and four juniors for the 2017 campaign.
Condon said some momentum built late in the year when Hyland returned and the team won seven of its final 10 games, which included two “heartbreaking losses” at Hawaii.
The 27-23 overall record was a five-game improvement from the previous season, and the Mustangs finished two games back of postseason-bound Long Beach State in the conference standings.
“We’ve got a foundation that we can build on, and I hope that next year we’re in the hunt for the conference championship,” Condon said. “That’s really our ultimate goal is to get to postseason and give our team an opportunity for a shot at going to the World Series.”