Golden Nuggets: Cal Softball is #1 in ESPN's Preseason Rankings

ESPN's Graham Hays has been counting down the top-20 teams for the 2012 softball season. The Bears came in at #1, just ahead of conference rival and reigning national champion Arizona State. Will Diane Ninemire bring home another national championship this season? The journey to Oklahoma City begins today as the Bears open the season against Tennessee.

Who returns: Everybody returns. Really, everybody. For all reasonable purposes, California returns the roster that made it to the Women's College World Series for the first time since 2005 and finished two games behind Arizona State in the Pac-10, the only team in the conference to finish within six games of the eventual national champion.

Start the list with Jolene Henderson, the ace in the circle who went 40-10 with a 0.99 ERA and 333 strikeouts in 333.1 innings as a sophomore last season. Without Valerie Arioto (that's right, Cal returns its entire roster and welcomes back a player in Arioto who posted All-American numbers as both a pitcher and hitter before injuries wiped out her 2011 season), Henderson took the ball again and again in the nation's toughest conference and never wilted. There's even reason to think Henderson, who finished third on the team with six home runs at the plate but hit just .217 overall, could be even more valuable this season as her bat develops.

While some might wonder if the Bears can replicate last year's remarkable success with the same roster, Valerie Arioto's return should play a crucial role for the Bears' depth and offensive prowess.

Could Henderson really handle such a heavy workload two seasons in a row against the kind of schedule California chooses to play out of conference and has to play in conference? Could the team score enough runs to make a go of it in Oklahoma City, where it simply didn't have the bats to match up with Alabama or Florida?

What makes both questions seem far less pressing is Arioto's return. Her ability to regain the form that helped her post a .590 on-base percentage and .819 slugging percentage in 2010, walking 81 times and hitting 19 home runs in 63 games, isn't in any doubt after watching her play for Team USA this past summer and fall. Arioto went 5-for-13 with 10 walks in eight starts in the Pan-Am Games. She didn't pitch for an American side already loaded with good arms, but she threw more innings than Henderson in 2010 for Cal, finishing 21-9 with a 1.43 ERA and 264 strikeouts in 205.2 innings.

After the jump Tosh bumbles and stumbles in his first meeting with the press while both basketball teams notch a crucial win over their LA opponents.

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