March 31, 2010
BERKELEY - When asked which of the games in her career at the helm of the California softball team stick out most in her mind, head coach Diane Ninemire sits back and rifles through countless innings of Golden Bear softball. With only two wins to go until she reaches the 1000-win platform, Ninemire, who is in her 23rd year at the helm, has to think for a moment before coming to a decision. She has plenty from which to choose - from the 2002 World Series Championship to any of the nine trips to the Women's College World Series that she has guided the Bears to the 998 wins and 483 losses.
"If there's a defining moment for Cal softball, it happened in '96 when we won the Regional at Fresno State," Ninemire recalls fondly. "We weren't picked to win the Regional."
In 1996, Cal was sent to Fresno State for the sixth time in the last 10 years for an NCAA Regional. Since their first trip to Bulldog Territory in 1982 following the inception of the NCAA Tournament for softball and coming into the 1996 season, the Bears had a 2-11 all-time record at Fresno State in postseason play.
The preview trip for Cal to Fresno State occurred in 1994, when the Bears opened the Regional with a 3-2 loss to Oregon only to rebound with an 8-0 mercy win in six innings over Central Michigan, Cal's only second win ever in the postseason at FSU. That win set the Bears and Oregon up for another battle with Oregon again emerging the victor, this time a 2-0 win for the Ducks in 20 innings.
So it was no surprise to the Bears that they were sent to Fresno for the 1996 Regional. Cal had finished the regular season at a 37-21 clip, finishing fourth in the Pac-10 at 14-12. This season was the first that the Bulldogs played in their newly opened Bulldog Stadium and the only year that the Women's College Series would be held at the Olympic Center in Georgia, which was built for the 1996 Atlanta Games.
In the Regional-opening game for the Bears, Cal defeated then-No. 19 Long Beach State, 4-1. Next on the docket was a match with host and postseason foe Fresno State, which lost to the Bears, 1-0, for Cal's second win against the Bulldogs in Regional play.
The Bears and Bulldogs met again the next day - May 19, 1996 - to decide who would advance to the Women's College World Series.
In the rubber match, the Bears broke through first in the bottom of the third when designated hitter Jenny Ackley singled to center field to score leadoff hitter and catcher Megumi Takasaki, who had reached on a single of her own to left. The lead would be short lived for Fresno State struck in the top of the fifth to knot the game at 1-1.
The score would remain at 1-1 for the next 3.5 innings, all of which were scoreless and saw Cal notch the only two hits.
Cal tallied its seventh hit of the game with shortstop Katie May hitting an inning-beginning single to right field. The next Bear batter - right fielder Dina Frandsen - worked Fresno pitcher Kim Peck for another single, this one to left, advancing May to second and putting two runners on with no outs.
That brought up left fielder Karen Bonini.
Bonini, who finished the 1996 season batting .150, had a single in the second, reached on a fielder's choice in the fourth and lined out to right in the seventh.
"The Fresno State defense was playing Bonini too deep," Ninemire describes. "They did not assess that she was going to be slapping and were too far deep."
Bonini and the Bears made them pay for that slight error.
With still no outs in the top of the ninth, the 5-5 left fielder Bonini power slapped up the middle.
The Bulldogs could not field the slow ground ball in time to throw May, who had the green light to score from second, out at home. Bonini became the hero, hitting the game-winning RBI single.
"I have not been hitting the ball well all year long, and I've made a lot of adjustments in my batting," Bonini said in the post-game press conference. "I had a temper tantrum yesterday, and they had to calm me down, and I adjusted my swing. I [choked up]and shortened my swing."
With their perfect 3-0 record at the Fresno State Regional, the Bears emerged as regional champions on the Bulldogs home field for the first time in program history.
Cal went on to go 1-2 at the Women's College World Series in Columbus, Ga., making its first appearance at the Series since 1992. But it was the extra-innings victory at Fresno State that Ninemire highlighted as a key game in her road to 1000 victories.
"One of the most important things that team took away from Fresno was how we played," Ninemire notes. "Winning at a place where we had previously struggled helped us immensely. It made the 1996 team as well as all the teams that followed to believe that we could win on the road and win on the road in hostile environments. The Bears can keep their focus and play under pressure."
For Ninemire and the Bears, keeping that focus under pressure is not just something that relates to the 1996 game against Fresno State or any other games. Like many of the experiences of a student-athlete, attitudes on the field translate to life off of it as well, something that Ninemire is quick and correct to note is a cornerstone of the Cal program.
"When we're on the road in the postseason, we're always in finals," Ninemire says. "For them to keep their focus on the finals and yet to do their very best at the most important part of the season, I just think it speaks volumes about the type of players that attend Cal and put on the Bear uniform. That's why when they leave Cal, they become such successful people because they have always been able to work under pressure."
The Karen Bonini story also demonstrates another hallmark of the Ninemire coaching philosophy.
"I've always told my players that it doesn't matter what you do in the season, it's what you do when it counts the most," Ninemire explains. "Your memories are made in the postseason. You always have to keep your dreams alive. For Karen Bonini to come through with the winning hit after struggling all year, it just goes to show you that you never know when your most important hit or run will happen. You never know what will end up being the biggest memory that you and your teammates will have for the rest of your lives."
Following the 1996 regional victory at Fresno State, Cal has gone back to the central valley six times for the postseason, but it has faired significantly better. Since 1996, the Bears are 19-6 in regional play at Bulldog Stadium, advancing to the next round in four different seasons. The nine-inning, 2-1 win on May 19, 1996 helped Cal turn the tide against Fresno State, altering Bear program history forever.
"To go there and play in front of their brand-new stadium in front of their fans, things have been different for us ever since then at Fresno," Ninemire concludes "After we struggled for so many years to win there, after that 1996 series, it's now a rarity that we lose in Fresno. It's like Fresno has become a home site for us since we get sent there so much."
Though Ninemire is set to reach 1000 wins, the 1996 game will no doubt stick with her for a long time to come.