For a team that last season saw its best record in recent memory, the Cal Poly women’s basketball squad is waiting for key returners to peak once again this season in order to make up for last year’s premature finish in the conference tournament.

The Mustangs (5-10 overall, 1-3 in the Big West) kicked off their 2006-2007 campaign in promising fashion with a pair of exhibition wins over Cal State Los Angeles (3-7) and the Australian Institute, only to drop a dismissive 76-62 decision to Nevada back on Nov. 11 in the season opener.

Much unlike the surprising run Cal Poly put together last year, the most the squad could muster this year was a two-game win streak back in November. From Dec. 7 to Jan. 6, the Mustangs were on the wrong end of a month-long seven game skid.

“Obviously they’re off to a tough start; the squad is younger than they’ve been in past years,” UCSB Head Coach Mark French said. “I imagine they’ll come on stronger in the second half [of conference play], because of all their youth. They typically play a lot of kids, they have a big roster lot and a lot of energy. They’re a scrappy kind of a team – that’s a good basketball term, scrappy. Last year they hurt us with their full-court pressure … [and] they gave us a lot of problems.”

The Cinderella story of the 2005-2006 season, Cal Poly finished 13-14 overall and 7-7 in the Big West, locked in a four-way tie for third place – the program’s best finish since it joined the ranks of the Big West conference 10 years ago. In the first 12 games last year, the Mustangs went 8-4 overall and 3-0 to start Big West play.

At the end of the season, Cal Poly was able to secure a spot in the Big West Tournament, only to lose to Pacific by 38 points in the quarterfinals – hardly the team that could contend with the competition for so much of the season.

“There’s a lot of positives that we’re able to glean from last year,” Head Coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “A very competitive year, obviously having a tie there for third place, that part was a little bit difficult going into the tournament as how we were positioned when they had the tiebreaker come down. It was a very exciting year, every game meant something and our team, I think, really responded to that level of competitiveness.”

At Santa Barbara on Jan. 21, 2006, Cal Poly was able to pull off a huge upset against first-place UCSB – the Mustangs’ first win in the Thunderdome in 23 years. Showing that the squad could hang with some of the Big West elite, the only team Cal Poly was unable to beat in the 2005-2006 season was Long Beach.

“[The win against SB] was a highlight of our season last year,” senior guard Jessica Eggleston said. “That was actually the game where I got my nose broken; it was really a great win and it meant a lot to our program.”

Posing a recurring problem for the young squad is consistency: Cal Poly needs to work at carrying winning momentum from the first half over to the second in order to be a potent threat in the conference in 2007. In some of its closest losses, Cal Poly led offensively throughout the first half. Four out of their 10 loses have been by six points or less. If this squad is able to translate that same pace into the second half, it will not have to resort to a game of catch-up in the final minutes of each game.

The strength of the 2007 Mustangs’ offense adds to the potential for a repeat of last year’s success. Returning players Eggleston, sophomore forward Megan Harrison and senior point guard Sparkle Anderson, were the top three scorers with a combined total of 802 points last season.

Eggleston led all players averaging 11.8 points and 6.1 rebounds per game during the 2005-2006 season, en route to earning Cal Poly’s first ever nomination to the All-Big West First Team. Since Cal Poly’s season opener on Dec. 28 at Fullerton, Eggleston has again stepped up to her natural leadership role, averaging 16 points and eight rebounds per game against Big West opponents – good for sixth and fifth place in the Big West.

“There’s no doubt about it: Last season Jessica established herself as one of the Big West’s elite players,” Mimnaugh said. “She comes in to practice each day with intensity and her leadership brings the team together. She returned in even better shape this season so we expect her to take her game to another level.”

On Nov. 25 against Portland State, Eggleston sunk a season-high 20 points in a 77-75 overtime victory and nearly matched that number in Cal Poly’s 84-73 loss to Irvine on Jan. 4. But the team needs to rely on production during both halves of the game in order to produce more tallies in the win column. In typical fashion, the Mustangs led the game in the first half by four points before giving up the lead in the second half.

In the New Year, Cal Poly seems to be turning its misfortunes around. Its 84-73 loss to Irvine on Jan. 4 marked yet another first-half lead that the Mustangs were unable to protect. As she has all year, Eggleston led all players, nearly completing a double-double with 18 points and eight rebounds on the night. Behind her freshman forward Bria Fields made her presence known in the Big West by notching 15 points and seven rebounds on the night.

Putting an end to the losing streak, the Mustangs rallied together to defeat Long Beach 60-51 on Jan. 6. Eggleston finally notched her double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds, while three other players stepped up to provide significant point support to maintain the Mustangs’ first half 18-point lead.

After the Mustangs notch one more win this season, Mimnaugh will be Cal Poly’s winningest coach in NCAA athletics. But in order to reach the .500 mark and head back to the Big West Tournament, the Mustangs need to maintain a consistent level of play for the duration of every game.