Second seasons in the Big West Conference haven’t been very kind to Cal State Bakersfield so far.
Men’s basketball went from 9-7 in conference play during the shortened 2020-21 campaign to 2-12 in 2021-22, women’s basketball from 7-6 to 3-11 and baseball from 17-19 to 11-19.
So it makes sense that CSUB men’s soccer coach Richie Grant said Tuesday it’s “wise to be conscious” as his team enters its sophomore campaign in the league. The Roadrunners, projected to finish last in the league in 2021, rode a surprising 5-3 Big West record into a conference playoff berth, and will face an uphill climb to replicate that result.
“We need to acknowledge that the second year is a challenge,” Grant said. “We need to train really, really well in the preseason so that we’re prepared. The same energy we had coming in fresh, we have to make sure we don’t lose that.”
Similarly, in its own debut season, indoor volleyball might have had the best year of any CSUB program, using its own fourth-place finish at 11-9 to secure a spot in a nationwide tournament, the National Invitational Volleyball Championship.
In short, the Roadrunners won’t be taking anyone by surprise this year.
“I love it,” said Hayley McCluskey, CSUB’s fifth-year senior outside hitter. “I think that that’s amazing, because I think we came in last year into the Big West, they (were) like ‘Oh, Bakersfield…’ and had a very, very low expectation for us.
“And now I like that we have a target on our back, knowing that we are a very competitive team.”
Along with external expectations shifting, though, CSUB volleyball will have to contend with some internal changes. For one thing, Giovana Melo’s staff has two new members in Brandon Row and Alex Lazarony. In addition, while the Roadrunners return McCluskey — the team leader in kills per set last season at 2.87 — they lost Seleisa Elisaia, their first-team All-Big West setter, who transferred to Penn State.
She operated as the sole setter in the 5-1 system that CSUB ran last year. Now, the Roadrunners will have to adjust to a new dynamic with a pair of transfer setters: Laura De Pra (St. John’s, Louisiana Tech) and Ella Erteltova (Florida International).
“That’s going to be a little challenging,” said senior libero Caroline Benke, “because we have to get to know them, we have to know how they are and how we can communicate with them.”
McCluskey said at Tuesday’s media day she hadn’t had the chance to practice with Erteltova yet, but was already impressed by De Pra, who had double-digit assists in 11 games for the Lady Techsters last season.
“She has a lot of potential,” McCluskey said. “I think that she’s going to be incredible for our team, and so I’m really excited about that.”
Besides McCluskey and Benke, CSUB retains two additional players who participated in every game last year: middle blocker Hana Makonova and libero Paige Calvin. The returnees will have to meld with additional transfers including Bakersfield native Ava Palm (UTEP) and middle blockers Sophia Bertotti Metoyer (Seattle) and Ella’s sister Emma Erteltova (Florida International).
“I think we needed to be in a different position going into the conference for this season,” Melo said Tuesday.
And they’ll have to get it together quickly, as the season opens with a nine-game road trip against many of the NCAA’s best, beginning at Arizona State on Aug. 26.
Men’s soccer will have a somewhat easier go of it at first, if only because CSUB gets a three-game homestand after a pair of road dates in late August.
It was slow going for the Roadrunners early last season, when they opened 0-5-1 before building momentum into their conference slate.
Even in conference, though, they had trouble containing opposing attackers. With a pair of freshmen, Scott Pengelly and Sucre Herrera, in goal all season long, CSUB allowed the highest goals against average of any team in the Big West. But now both goalkeepers have a season under their belt.
“I feel like the first year was good to adjust to the environment, to the coaching, to each other,” Herrera said.
Grant has also added two more keepers to the mix as part of a class of 13 newcomers, he said.
“We’ve always wanted to have four,” he said. “With Chris (McGaughey), we have really strong goalkeeping coaching. And with two last year, there’s always that fear that if one gets hurt, you’re very thin and lacking in competition. So we’ve strengthened in that position, and I hope that we feel the reward to that as we get through the season.”
The defensive core should remain fairly consistent, featuring co-captain Harry Downing, Big West All-Freshman Team selection and Highland alum Bryson Hankins, and Trinidad and Tobago international Stephon Marcano.
On offense, though, the Roadrunners will look different after the graduation of forwards Tom Shepherd and Aodhán O’Hara, leaving co-captain Carlos Armendariz as the only returnee who scored more than one goal last year. And all four of his were penalty kicks. (His advice: “Just be confident. Step up, and just know where you’re going from the beginning.”)
He and returning forwards Rene Cortez and Kevin Estrada, combined with whoever emerges among the new recruits, will look to keep the Roadrunners threatening on the attack.
“It’s a responsibility that everyone wants to take on,” Armendariz said. “Because like we say, pressure’s a privilege. It’s a good kind of pressure.”
Reporter Henry Greenstein can be reached at 661-395-7374. Follow him on Twitter: @HenryGreenstein.