When Cal lost Valerie Arioto last season, the Bears looked. Fat chance. Jolene Henderson came right in and offered one of the most dominant pitching seasons in recent memory. The sophomore from Elk Grove started 50 games, pitched 36 complete ones, had 333 strikeouts in 333+ innings, posted a 0.99 ERA in the regular season and pushed Cal on to a surprising College World Series appearance. Henderson's season earned her Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year honors, and if there was a Softball Heisman watch list, she deserved to be on it.
But the loss of Arioto for 2011 is our gain for 2012, as the softballer came in and lead them to start off the season. She earned player of the week honors from USA Softball for her usual dominance on the mound and at the bat.
The ASU Classic this past weekend gave us a preview of a Bears team that's slightly different from last year's incarnation. And by different I mean more awesome.
Friday: #3/4 California 13, #9/14 Tennessee 5
Henderson started the first game of the season, and it was a bit rough. Henderson surrendered four runs early, including three in the first inning after giving up a few shallow hits, a bunt and a walk. Most of the damage came through nibbling by the Vols, so at least Henderson was keeping the ball inside the park.
Jolene might've struggled, but the Vols pitchers had it much, much worse. Ivy Renfroe got punished for nine runs in her first four innings of work. In her first action back from injury, Arioto had two hits in her first three appearances, both of them clearing the fence for four RBIs. Her other appearance was a walk, followed by a Jace Williams home run of her own.
Lo and behold, it was the freshmen who really stepped up their game. Breanna Kostreba, Cheyenne Cordes and Danielle Henderson (sister of Jolene) were all placed in the center of that lineup, and they couldn't stop hitting softballs everywhere. Henderson hit a home run and Kostreba and Cordes combined for five hits and five runs on seven at-bats. These young Bears bring a lot of added hitting prowess that wasn't always there last season, and could be very valuable if they continue to produce throughout the season.
Saturday: Cal 5, Bradley 0
Super seniors took control of this one. Arioto pitched a complete game two-hitter and added an RBI while Williams bombed a three run homer in the first inning to put this one away.
Cal 10, Texas State 0 (called in 5)
Henderson did Arioto one better with a one-hitter. Arioto hit a three run homer, and Jolene's sister added her second of the season. LaRisa Jones and Britt Vonk also did some damage.
Sunday: Cal 6, Syracuse 3
Ariana Erceg started and allowed only one hit in three innings of work, even though it was a home run. Henderson earned the win by pitching the final four innings. Both gave up home runs to the same girl.
Cal returned to their smallball ways as they worked the count, forcing Jenna Caira to throw 145 pitches (Erceg and Henderson threw only 86 combined). Caira only gave up five hits but walked nine batters, including four in the seventh, which ended up leading to three runs. Vonk had the winning runs in the 4th after Lindsey Ziegenhirt and Frani Echavarria reached and Jamia Reid moved them into scoring position.
4-0 to start the season. Good enough for number one in the ESPN poll and number three in the USA Today poll.
In case you decided to make a Vegas run this weekend, why not spend your mornings at Eller Media Stadium in UNLV and Stephanie Lynn Craig Park supporting the Bears? This is where Cal will be spending its time playing in the Louisville Slugger Desert Classic. Cal will play DePaul (11:15 am) on Friday at Eller Media before playing the rest of their games at Stephanie Lynn Craig. Then they'll have two cupcake battles with San Jose State (9 am) and UC Riverside (11 am) on an early double-header. Finally, their fiercest test will be Sunday against 24th ranked LSU (11:15 am).
You can see Cal can win all sorts of ways. Pitching, hitting, coming from behind, or sheer domination--Cal softball won in all sorts of ways without fail. If they play like they did last week, they should be a joy to watch in person.