Sports » Paul Gackle

Golden Bears set sights on national championship

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Aiming high: Jolene Henderson leads a strong pitching staff that the Bears hope will lead them to a national title. - KYLE TERADA/US PRESSWIRE
  • Kyle Terada/US PRESSWIRE
  • Aiming high: Jolene Henderson leads a strong pitching staff that the Bears hope will lead them to a national title.

After the final pitch of last year’s Women’s College World Series, the Cal softball team locked itself into a single-minded goal: Get back and win it.

As the nation’s No. 1 team heading into this weekend’s NCAA regional at Levine-Fricke Field in Berkeley, the Bears (50-4) are well-positioned to bring that goal to fruition.

“Just getting a taste of [the World Series] has been the thing that has kept this team so strong this year,” coach Diane Ninemire said.     

On paper, the Bears have everything a national contender could want: 10 returning starters, a lineup that hits top to bottom (.320 team batting average), a slugger, Valerie Arioto, who set a school record for home runs (22), the conference’s top two pitchers in Jolene Henderson (29-2, 1.22 ERA) and Arioto (20-2, 1.22 ERA) and a leadoff batter, Jamia Reid, who’s 45 steals more than double the total of the Pac-12 Conference’s next best base thief (21).  

But numbers can’t depict the off-field chemistry that sets this group apart.

“I’m going to miss playing softball, but I’ll miss being a part of this team more,” senior Frani Echavarria said. “It’s not often you come across a group like this.”

On the road, the team spends most of their waking moments together, whether it’s watching movies, wandering the mall or having some laughs while playing “Just Dance” on Nintendo Wii.

“It spills over onto the field in a very positive way,” senior Jace Williams said.

She said team cohesiveness is a major reason why the Pac-12 champs were able to rattle off 16 straight road wins before playing a single home game this year.

But to get another crack at the World Series, the Bears will first need to win this weekend’s double-elimination regional tournament featuring Iona, Arkansas and Boston University. If everything goes according to plan, the Bears will host the winner of the Seattle Regional (Washington, Harvard, Maryland, Texas Tech) in a best-of-three super-regional starting May 25; the winner advances to the World Series in Oklahoma City.

Ninemire said this year’s squad is as stacked as any she’s coached in her 25 years at Cal, including the 2002 national championship team.     

“Talent is not always enough to win the championship, it comes down to having the will,” she said. “They certainly have all the makings to be the one of the best teams we’ve ever known here at Cal.”