In its most recent history, Big West women’s basketball has mainly been about two teams: UC Riverside and UC Santa Barbara. Last season, however, Cal Poly ignited a winning streak in mid-January that transformed the Mustangs into one of the hottest teams in the conference. Cal Poly won nine of its last ten games to close out the year – including eight consecutive victories at one point – and finished in a tie for third place with Cal State Northridge.
This season, the women in green welcome back nearly their entire 2006-2007 roster, minus one significant piece: forward Jessica Eggleston. As the first two-time All Big West honoree in Mustang history and the program’s fourth all-time leading scorer, Eggleston and her 14 points per game will be sorely missed. Losing a player like Eggleston is tough for Head Coach Faith Mimnaugh, who steps into her 11th season at the Mustang helm, but she is still confident about the Mustangs collective capability.
“From the coaching standpoint, we had a team that came back determined and in shape,” Mimnaugh said. “We had a number of tests that they had to pass and most passed on the very first day. We had a large group that stayed during the summertime, played together as a team, trained the whole summer and I think that they have one mission and that’s to win the championship.”
If a scout wants to know about Cal Poly’s biggest assets, they should look no further than the team’s smallest player this year, senior guard Sparkle Anderson. Her speed and quickness make her not only an extremely aggressive defender, but also a dynamic ball-handler. She averaged two steals per game last season before an injury forced her to redshirt just six games into the year.
Along with Anderson on defensive assignments this year is senior guard Toni Newman, whose 3.2 steals per game last year were ninth in the country, as well as tops in the Big West. In 16 games so far this season, the pair has combined for just 29 takeaways, but both players have been coming off of the bench.
“Our style of play is fast paced both offensively and defensively,” Mimnaugh said. “Obviously, our defense has tendencies to spark our offense. Coming up with steals creates a lot of fast-break opportunities, but we’re not going to gamble and put ourselves in bad positions to give up lay-ups either. Sometimes our defense will take ticks off the clock for our opponent so it may not always result in a steal.”
In terms of starters, Cal Poly has fed off of two of its tallest players in junior forwards Lisa McBride and Megan Harrison. Besides being one of the team’s biggest threats from beyond the three-point arc, McBride has led the Mustangs in rebounding on several occasions during nonconference play while Harrison has been Cal Poly’s go-to player by contributing almost 15 points per game primarily because of her height and ability to handle the ball as a forward.
“The size that we can put on the floor is particularly [significant] at the small forward position,” Mimnaugh said. “We have people that can hit the three or post other people up and we have great versatility in all of our post positions so they can all face up and do some damage as well as go back to the basket. It’s a nice luxury to have.”
Back on the defensive side of the ball, senior guard Kyla Howell and sophomore guard Tamara Wells are two players who serve as important keys to putting pressure on opponents. Heralded as one of the best defensive players in the conference by Coach Mimnaugh, Wells has followed up a solid freshman year with the same kind of intensity this season, leading the team thus far with 22 steals.
When asked about the Mustangs’ adjustments this year, Newman emphasized the squad’s familiarity with one another.
“In the past we’ve worked hard,” Newman said. “But it’s like a different level this year. Everybody’s in the gym after practice; they’re all in there getting extra shots in with the coaches. Everyone is stepping up, everyone knows their roles. I think that is the biggest part of how we’re starting right now and us staying together and pushing each other.”
For all that’s been said about Cal Poly’s speed, defense and transition offense, they were only 3-7 heading into conference play. Making up for the holes left by Eggleston has been a challenge for the Mustangs, but Coach Mimnaugh knows where her team needs to improve.
“I think we have to decrease our turnover count and become a better overall rebounding team,” Mimnaugh said. “I think that our offense is miles ahead of where it’s been in the past because we have so many returning players that understand what we’re trying to do.”
Other Big West teams will be keeping a close eye on Cal Poly this year because they know all too well that the Mustangs are certainly capable of another win streak. And with four hungry seniors on the roster this year, the Green Machine is not to be taken lightly.
“Every single team member is wearing a band this year,” Mimnaugh said. “At practice and anytime on court, except for games because you’re not allowed to wear them, you’ll see the ‘committed’ band. We’re committed to the goal of winning a championship.”