I’ll admit it, I was pretty surprised when I heard that Cal softball was ranked third in the nation to start the 2013 season. And I don’t at all mean that as a slight to the players currently on the roster. It’s more a matter of respect to those players who graduated last year. Consider that the Bears have lost:
- Arguably the greatest hitter in the history of this illustrious program, a player with a Bondsian impact on every inning in which she might bat. Valerie Arioto was the best hitter in the nation last year, and oh yeah she also was a top 10 pitcher in the Pac-12 but that’s only kinda incidental because holy moley that hitting.
- Arguably the best leadoff hitter in the country, a pure speedster who could turn any contact in fair play into a hit. Jamia Reid was an absolute terror on the basepaths, turning singles into doubles and errors into runs. Oh yeah, and she used that speed to track down anything in the outfield too.
- Their starting centerfielder and clean-up hitter during the playoffs. Frani Echavarria was a constant prescence both in the lineup and on the field, and she collected some of the biggest hits in Cal’s post-season run as she punished teams for pitching around Arioto.
- Their starting second baseman and patient, top-of-the-lineup stalwart. Jace Williams anchored the right side of the diamond defensively and wore pitchers out with her batting eye at the plate.
All in all the Bears lost 4/9 of their starting lineup from one of the most dominant offenses in Cal history, along with their best defender and pinch runner off the bench.
Head Coach Diane Ninemire will have the challenge of completely remaking Cal’s outfield and right side of the infield, as well as a group of players that, at times, batted 1-2-3-4 in the order. And yet Cal is still ranked #3 to start the season. I can think of six potential explanations, and they all probably play a role:
- Jolene Henderson.
- Poll inertia. Voters will keep a team where they were last year until other teams prove they are better.
- Diane Ninemire. She knows how to win softball games.
- Cal’s incredible class of 2012 freshmen, who will be looking for an encore to an impressive first year.
- A recruiting class that I’m told is very very good.
- Jolene Henderson.
Let’s talk about a few of those items, starting with Jolene Henderson. Because she’s pretty good. Cal’s workhorse pitched nearly every single inning during Cal’s playoff run and finished the season pitching more innings than nearly every single other pitcher in the nation. When you’re that good AND that durable you’re an incredibly valuable piece for any team. Henderson almost seemed to get better the more she pitched, as her change up just got nastier. She’s been baffling hitters for three years and there’s no reason to expect that to change. When you can throw one of the five best pitchers in the country out there two thirds of the time you’re virtually guaranteed to be a good team.
And while it’s easy to see what kind of hitting talent the Bears graduated, most everybody else in the nation would be jealous about the players that will be back. It starts with the sophomore trio of Danielle Henderson, Breana Kostreba and Cheyenne Cordes, who all excelled last year and will anchor Cal’s infield for years to come.
Britt Vonk and catcher Victoria Jones are also back, and their skills will be complemented by five freshmen who have already started making an impact on the field. I recommend you head over to the 2013 roster at CalBears.com and read their bios – I can’t even begin to summarize all of the various honors Cal’s freshmen received during their prep careers, but suffice to say that all of them are all-state performers in various capacities. Vanessa Alvarez, Jasmin Mejia and Khala Taylor have three times all started together in the outfield, and Nisa Ontiveros started on the mound against Cal State Northridge, so the youngsters clearly have a role to play this year.
It will be interesting to see what kind of lineup and defensive alignment Diane Ninemire eventually settles on. Just about every player on the Cal roster has multiple positions they are capable of playing, and it gives Cal’s coach a wide variety of options to choose from. If I'm reading the box scores correctly only Danielle Henderson (3B) and Cheyenne Cordes (SS) started every game at the same position.
The Bears got off to a rough start, dropping two games in Arizona. One was to perennially ranked Florida, the other in extra innings to a solid Kentucky team, so I don't think there's any particular reason to be alarmed. Cal will be playing at various weekend tournaments over the next few weeks before Pac-12 play begins in late March. and I'm sure early season games will be used to find the best offensive and defensive lineups, and to acclimate the freshmen to college softball.
Sure, it's a shame to say goodbye to the athletes who thrilled us last year, but the joy of college sports is that there's always another group of players to get to know for four years. With a lineup that will occasionally include six underclassmen, it's those young players that might define the 2013 season.