December 26, 2023 

Driven by relationships, Annika Shah reaches another level at Cal Poly

The 5'3 guard has become one of the Big West's top players as a junior

In today’s college basketball landscape, it’s not uncommon to see players enter the transfer portal, especially after a coaching change. But Cal Poly guard Annika Shah stayed after she was introduced to a new coaching staff following her freshman year in 2021–22.

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At the end of Shah’s freshman season, Mustangs head coach Faith Mimnaugh announced that she would retire after 25 years at the helm. Although Shah only played one season for Mimnaugh, she was able to take quite a bit away from the legendary coach. Shah told The Next that if it weren’t for Mimnaugh and her staff, she likely would not be playing Division I basketball.

“They believed in me and saw something special in me, so I have a lot of love for them,” Shah said. “You go through a lot of programs and a lot of times it’s fake, the family that they might display on visits and all that stuff. But what Coach Faith and that coaching staff showed was a huge family aspect. They cared about not only you as a player but … your academics, your family and so much more aspects of life.”

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Following Mimnaugh’s retirement, Cal Poly hired Shanele Stires, who had multiple stints at the Division I and II levels as both a head coach and an assistant coach and played in the WNBA. Getting accustomed to a whole new coaching staff can be challenging for any player. But Shah was up for that challenge.

A big reason for that was the fact that Shah recognized the same type of family aspect that Mimnaugh had brought. But her first conversation with Stires, and the question Stires asked her, sealed the deal. Listed at 5’3, Shah is a smaller guard, and smaller guards seem to face an extra level of scrutiny. Stires didn’t see it that way, though.

“The first thing that Coach Stires told me when she met me was she asked me, ‘What’s your strength?’ And the first thing I said was, ‘Oh, my shooting, my scoring ability,’ things like that. But she said, ‘No, it’s your size.’ That was something that really touched me because I’ve never had a coach like that see it in that aspect,” Shah said.

“It’s hard out there when sometimes I can’t always see the hoop when I shoot, but that’s just the preparation of practice that helps me take my game to the next level. You learn to work around it. You see so many guards these days, whether it’s Steph Curry or girls in the WNBA or other collegiate athletes on the men’s and women’s side, that are small. You’re starting to see people work around that.”

And Shah has certainly managed to work around that. She made an immediate impact as a freshman two seasons ago. Although her numbers didn’t exactly stand out on the stat sheet, she was a regular in the rotation as a backup guard playing in 24 games, including four starts.

The following year as a sophomore, her first under Stires, she started all 25 games and became the team’s leading scorer. She averaged 9.8 points and 2.9 assists per game while shooting 35.8% from the 3-point line.

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This year, Shah has entered the conversation as one of the best guards in the Big West and a potential candidate for all-conference honors. She’s increased her numbers to a team-best 12.7 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game while shooting 45.1% from 3-point range and 94.1% from the free-throw line. Shah credits Stires’ system for helping her gradually improve.

“I think [she’s] really just giving me a lot of opportunities to grow and put me in positions that my strengths can help me in. And she’s really helped me break down certain levels of my game that needed a lot of improvement,” Shah said.

“Credit to all the time that she spent just trying to develop me … She really puts in a lot of effort as well as the assistant coaching staff to develop all of us year to year and really week to week. They put so much time and effort into really breaking down film, getting on the court extra and any little thing they can to help us develop.”

Last season didn’t go so well record-wise for the Mustangs, as they finished 10-18 and only 7-12 in Big West play. This season, the Mustangs have a 4-6 record through nonconference play. But their nonconference schedule has included nationally ranked Pac-12 opponents such as No. 6 USC, No. 9 Stanford and No. 24 Washington State. That’s not unusual for the Mustangs: Last season, they squared off against South Carolina and Stanford, who were ranked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, at the time.

When Mimnaugh was the head coach, Cal Poly was routinely one of the best teams in the Big West, contending annually for the conference championship and the resulting NCAA Tournament berth. That’s the level this team aspires to get back to, and playing against high-major teams only helps by preparing them for what they could potentially face in the NCAA Tournament.

“We’re playing opponents who are faster than us, bigger than us, stronger than us … If we can compete against these opponents, then it’s just going to help us in the long run with conference [play],” Shah said. “[We’re] just taking those little aspects of the game that we grow in and also looking at areas that we struggled in and really focusing and digging into those. Seeing those areas that we grow in and seeing how we can continue to utilize those, especially when it’s conference.”

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The Mustangs open Big West Conference play on Dec. 28 at Cal State Northridge. In the preseason Big West media poll, Cal Poly was picked to finish eighth. While Shah acknowledged that the team wants to do well in conference play and ultimately make the NCAA Tournament, she said that continuing to strengthen her bond with her teammates is what would make this season worthwhile to her.

“The biggest thing to college athletics is the relationships that you’re able to build. And … I’ve created so many lifelong relationships by just knowing these girls for a couple of months,” Shah said. “Of course we want to win big. Of course we want to go to the NCAA Tournament; that’s a dream.

“But continuing to play for each other is the biggest, ’cause once you learn to play for each other and play for the girls around you and play for the program that you have, that’s going to take you a long way and you’ll see a lot more things like winning.”

David has been with The Next team since the High Post Hoops days when he joined the staff in 2018. He is based in Los Angeles and covers the LA Sparks, Pac-12 Conference, Big West Conference and some high school as well.

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