Big West Conference: a whole new league in 2013-2014

Not much in the Big West Conference went according to prediction last year, and this season might still be reverberating from that.

Cal Poly surged to second place and won the 2013 conference championship. Hawaii, under new coach Laura Beeman, ended up in third place, while the media’s preseason top pick, Cal State Northridge, faded to a fifth-placed tie after a string of losses.

This season the 2012-2013 Big West best top finisher and conference tournament runner-up Pacific has migrated to the West Coast Conference, leaving nine teams and a wide-open race for the top spot. A media poll two weeks ago picked Poly to finish first, Hawaii second, CSUN third, Long Beach State fourth and UC Santa Barbara, fifth. UC Davis, Cal State Fullerton, UC Irvine and UC Riverside round out the rest of the preseason rankings.

The Mustangs return top scorer and rebounder Molly Schlemer (13.3 ppg, 7.1 ppg), as well as Ariana Elegado (12 ppg) and Jonae Ervin (8 ppg). But the loss of starters Kayla Griffin and Caroline Reeves means the rest of the team will have to fill their shoes.

“We are certainly feeling the loss of our graduated seniors,” coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “With as many minutes as Griffin and Reeves logged over their Cal Poly careers, the time for grooming new players in those roles is upon us. How we progress as a team will largely depend on the learning curve of these team members.”

“Thankfully, we have seasoned players in Ervin, Schlemer and Elegado, who assist in the transformation and integration of new talent. Those three are playing like All-Conference performers and understand the effort and teamwork it takes to play championship caliber basketball. There are plenty of challenges before us, including a brutal 13-game preseason, featuring some of the nation’s top programs. Toughness is earned through battling with foes that make you better. Our hope is to become a tough nosed ball club with a steely resolve to be the best we’re capable of becoming.”

Beeman, known for her high energy and technical instruction, steadily developed the Wahine throughout last season – their first in the conference. She looks to do the same this year.

“We are extremely excited to begin season number two in the Big West,” Beeman said. “The conference again is going to be athletic, well-coached and highly competitive. The respect we have for the teams in the BWC shows in our practice preparation. Our difficult preseason schedule will definitely help us get ready for what conference holds.”

Cal State Fullerton, which improbably made it to the conference tournament semifinals last year, returns almost its full roster under new coach Daron Park. Most recently, Park was associate head coach at USC. He has also coached at the University of Maryland and Cal.

Big West Conference play begins the second week in January.