Feb. 3, 2004
Berkeley, Calif. - After back-to-back appearances in the Women's College World Series National Championship Game, including the school's first ever NCAA title in 2002, the California softball team enters the 2003 season as one of the preeminent programs in the sport. The Bears have been to the NCAA Tournament 19 consecutive years, the longest streak of any Pac-10 school, and have been awarded a trip to Oklahoma City five consecutive years. So what can this new group of Bears do for an encore?
Head Coach Diane Ninemire has assembled a fundamentally solid team with depth, but the Bears did lose two All-Americans this season in first baseman Veronica Nelson and catcher Courtney Scott. All Nelson did was set the NCAA record for walks and the Cal records for RBI and home runs over her four-year career - a testament to how feared she was as a hitter. Scott was the emotional leader, calling a superb game. As defensively sound as they come, she was one of the club's clutch hitters.
When you lose two players of that caliber, team's style of play will change out of necessity. The lineup has become more balanced, featuring four lefties now. In addition, expect the Bears to play more small ball. That means moving runners over, going from first to third, and most of all, stealing bases. Vicky Galindo had a huge impact at the top of the order last season and Ninemire expects many of her players to follow Galindo's lead.
"We have a great balance with power and speed," said Ninemire. "This is the most speed we've ever had. If we get runners on, they can do their thing on the basepaths. When you use the running attack, you put pressure on the defense to come up with the big play."
Combine speed and defense (Cal's last two seasons have featured the two highest fielding percentages in school history), and you already have a potent team.
The last ingredient to this equation would be a dominant pitching staff. With a great tradition of pitching during Ninemire's tenure, conjuring up images of Michele Granger and Jocelyn Forest, the Bears last year were looking for a new arm to pass the torch to. That arm belongs to junior Kelly Anderson, who improved by leaps and bounds last season. At first, she had problems getting out of the fourth and fifth innings. But once she learned to locate better and not lose focus, she began to complete games by the bushel, 22 in all.
"She (Anderson) really came into her own last year," said Ninemire. "Once she got her confidence, she became a perfectionist at pitch location. She is extremely good at keeping batters off-balance. She stepped into the shadows of Jocelyn Forest at a key time in our season. There won't be any surprises this year at what she's capable of doing."
Now Anderson leads a young staff, which will rely heavily on fundamentally sound defense and an offense that manufactures runs. In doing so, Cal should be able to win the close games against good competition. The best competition is in conference, where the Bears went 10-11 last season. Yet they still managed to come up with a big College World Series win over UCLA and consecutive victories against Arizona, when a loss in either would have meant the end of their tournament.
They will need more conference magic again this year to a third straight Women's College World Series Championship game.
Cal may have had deeper pitching staffs in the past, but rarely has it had three more competent hurlers on one team.
With Anderson returning for her junior season, she will be looked upon to anchor the staff. Last season, she went 23-12 with a sparkling 1.05 ERA. Anderson was at her best in the College World Series, when Ninemire decided to live or die with her ace. Anderson responded, pitching 48 out of Cal's 52 innings with a 0.88 ERA. She was just as remarkable in regional play, being named MVP. Anderson has become a pitcher in every sense of the word.
"She's not overpowering," Ninemire explains. " She mixes speeds well and trusts her defense."
Overpowering or not, Anderson still managed to whiff opposing hitters at a rate of 0.81 K/IP over her 247.0 innings of work.
When Ninemire isn't handing the ball to Anderson, sophomore Kristina Thorson will be next in line. Thorson showed maturity beyond her years during an inaugural season, when her 1.44 ERA translated into a 15-7 record. She was even more dominant than Anderson at times, as her rate of 1.09 K/IP over 141 innings attests. She had three starts of ten or more strikeouts, including a 12K performance versus UNLV (3/22)
"Kristina had some really great games last year," Ninemire said. "She has worked extremely hard in the weight training room. She has a great variety of pitches she throws. Both pitchers use a fastball, riseball, curveball, and screwball. But most important is the change, which keeps hitters off balance."
Anderson and Thorson, both All-Pac-10 selections last season, will team up for a great one-two punch down the stretch. But the final member of the staff, who will attempt to make this terrific twosome a triumvirate, is freshman Sarah Adams. Adams pitched at Half Moon Bay High School and was named pitcher of the year and MVP of her team.
"Sarah is doing some great work this fall," said Ninemire. "She's going to build on that and contribute to this year's team. If we have a complete staff of three, we should have one of the best staff's in the country."
Cal brings a re-tooled infield into the 2004 season, welcoming new starters at second base, first base and catcher.
Going around the diamond, junior Vicky Galindo mans the hot corner. She is quickly becoming a terror on the basepaths. Last season, she swiped 19 bags, being caught only four times. Galindo batted 324 and posting a .365 on base percentage last year, ranking first and second among returning players, respectively. Her ability to stretch singles into doubles and doubles into triples allowed this junior college transfer to place second on the team in total bases, despite hitting only one home run.
"Vicky will be our leadoff hitter," said Ninemire. "She has great speed and range. We'd like to get her 40 steals this year. She's our rabbit."
Chelsea Spencer returns for her third season as the starting shortstop. Spencer can pick it with the best of them, and she has shown the ability to rise to the occasion. Take last year's College World Series for instance, when the junior was named to the All-CWS Tournament team. Spencer led the team with a .318 BA, and scored four runs, while knocking in five, over six tournament games.
"Chelsea is one of the most outstanding shortstops in the country," said Ninemire. "She's a real leader and has worked extremely hard at the plate in the offseason."
Jessica Pamanian moves from the outfield to become Spencer's double play partner at second base. The versatile junior has shown great range and hands, wherever Ninemire has played her. She was second on the team in doubles last season with six and is a career .261 hitter after her first two seasons.
First base remains somewhat of a question mark for the Bears this year. Vacated by a cast of seniors, two freshmen will be looked upon to fill the void in Gwen Arafiles and Alyssa Smoke. Arafiles lettered at Lincoln High in Stockton, Calif. before joining the Bears, while Smoke hit .425 over her high school career at Cascade High in Everett, WA. Both players have the power, but the job will most likely be won by who is more consistent.
At catcher, Haley Woods completes the infield. Woods looks to be an impact player, after last year serving as Courtney Scott's backup and spending time as the designated player. Even though she missed time with a broken wrist - an injury that can be devastating to hitters - she still managed to hit .301 and knock in 21 runs in only 93 at bats. That included recognition on the NCAA All-Region team after hitting .462 (6-13) in Ann Arbor.
"Haley has a big bat and will hit in the cleanup spot," said Ninemire. "She is a big leader on this team, replacing Courtney and calling the pitches."
Backing up Woods is freshman Shannon Harper, who is capable of supplying power off the bench. Her senior year at Lincoln High School, she hit .438 and had more extra base hits than singles.
Jessica Vernaglia will be used as a backup to Galindo at her natural position at third. She also will be called upon as a pinch hitter and runner in key spots.
The front runner for the designated player spot is utility infielder Roni Rodriguez. The senior is coming off her redshirt year and should provide experience for a young team.
Cal's outfield looks to be a mix of youth and experience.
The experience comes in the form of seasoned junior Kaleo Eldredge. Eldredge plays a great center field, covering a lot of ground, and will be a key hitter in the order, batting third. She was named to the All-Pacific Region team last season after batting .309 (51-165), third on the team. Her versatility in the middle of the order will be a huge benefit for however Ninemire chooses to manage. Eldredge can get on base (last season at a .388 clip) and drive runners in (30 RBI). She will likely steal more bases this year as well.
"Kaleo has great range and is an outstanding batter," said Ninemire. "She's a threat to any opponent. Potentially, she could be our RBI leader. She most likely will hit in the third spot but she could leadoff too."
Eldredge is joined in the outfield by left fielder Lindsay James, who returns for her sophomore season after a very successful freshman campaign. She received All-Pac-10 honorable mention after posting a .327 regular season batting average and .401 on base percentage. James scored 36 runs, second on the team, and was successful in all four of her stolen base attempts.
"Lindsay started last year as a freshman and hit in the second spot," said Ninemire. "She can advance runners and hopefully steal more bases as well."
Shagging flies in left field will be newcomer Alex Sutton. The San Jose native led the West Catholic League in batting average on her way to an MVP season her senior year.
Kristen Bayless takes on the role of utility outfielder this year. Bayless, a junior, also has experience behind the plate.