Feb. 8, 2012
BERKELEY - With the start of the heavily anticipated 2012 campaign just two days away, CalBears.com sat down with California softball head coach Diane Ninemire. Ninemire talked about offense, defense, what makes this team better than the 2002 team that won the NCAA Championship, and of course, how to get back to Oklahoma City.
CalBears.com: First things first, how excited are you for this season?
Diane Ninemire: We're really excited about this year because we get Valerie Arioto back and everybody's healthy right now. I think we have all the pieces that we need to go really deep. It's just a matter of going out and playing the games and getting better with every game.
CalBears.com: Let's talk scheduling. We open with Tennessee and have a nonconference slate that's incredibly difficult.
DN: We're not playing a patsy out of the gate. Tennessee is a team that can easily make it to the World Series, a super regional and regionals every year. No matter the outcome, we'll learn a lot from that first game that will help us out down the road. We're facing a lot of tough teams this year. I think our schedule is together than it's ever been, but I think this team will embrace that. I think that will also help us going down the stretch for postseason to prepare us for a lot of tough teams.
CalBears.com: Last year, the squad made it to Oklahoma City for the first time since 2005. What's next?
DN: It's not good enough to just get there. We need to do something there. We need to make some noise.
CalBears.com: What are some factors going to be in the Bears making noise in OKC?
DN: We didn't lose any players from last year's team. By far, we have the most depth that Cal has ever known in all the years that I've coached here. We have a tremendous group of players that play multiple positions and are excellent hitters. I think we have a great balance of speed and power. I feel we have all the tools to do what we need to do. It's going to come down to performing in game situations and understanding their roles and staying strong as a team and continuing to be on all the time all the way. To me, it's all about the alls this year. If this team can stay strong as team then they'll give themselves the opportunity to go the farthest that this team has known for a long time.
CalBears.com: It's the 10-year anniversary of your first NCAA Championship. How does this year's squad compare to that title team?
DN: I think there are a lot of similarities especially with the talent. We'll have much more depth in the pitching area. In 2002, we had to rely mostly on Jocelyn Forrest. This year, we have Jolene Henderson, Val, Arianna Erceg and Nikki Owens, which will be helpful. Hitting wise, I think we have more hitters. We have more depth. In 2002, we had great outstanding players, no doubt about it, but we didn't have a lot of depth on the team. I think this will help in case we do have an injury to someone who is a key player that we have a lot of people who could step up into that role. I pretty much had a starting nine team in 2002 and that's basically who played. I had walk-ons that started for me.
In June 2002, we had two second team All-Americans in Joyelyn Forrest and Candace Harper; we didn't even have a first teamer. This year, we've got Jolene and Val, both of whom are first teamers. To have that kind of returning power, along with the other talented kids on the team who have that potential is great. But again, talent isn't enough. There are so many other things that go into how you end your season. There's a little luck, a little bit of who you draw and who you're matched up with in the postseason. You just have to get on a roll. It's magical.
CalBears.com: Speaking of Valerie Arioto, talk about her devastating injury last year and how it affected the team.
DN: It was just a blow because she was our returning all-American. I also knew that it was also going to test our team and to see who else was going to step up and take up the slack of Val not being there. In many ways, when things like that happen, you just can't understand why. But it became apparent as the season went on, that it really strengthened our team because so many other people had to pick up where she left off. I think what that does is creates a situation where our team this year will be so much stronger than we ever could have imagined it to be because it was the door that opened for the others to step up and do something that maybe they didn't even think was possible.
CalBears.com: Continuing the pitching trend, let's talk about the hurlers.
DN: Of course, our pitching staff will be key. It starts in the circle with Jolene, Val, Ari and Nikki. I think they can all do something that can help this team. Our pitching staff is No. 1 here.
CalBears.com: Moving right along, talk about the infield, please.
DN: It's very competitive right now. Jace Williams, Danielle Henderson and Breana Kostreba are all at third base fighting it out, dueling it out. We've got Cheyenne Cordes, who can play short, along with Britt Vonk. I think we've got depth in the shortstop area. At second base, we have Victoria Jones and Mary Lee battling it out. At first, there's Val and Jolene and Alex Robben.
CalBears.com: You've got three seniors in the outfield, can you talk about how you see that shaping up?
DN: My outfield is very experienced with amia Reid in left, Frani Echavarria in center and Elia Reid in right. But we've also got Ashley Decker and LaRisa Jones who played out there last year. We've also got some of those infielders that can go out there as well if need be. During her freshman year, Val started in right field.
CalBears.com: Sounds like quite the options for you in terms of creating the line-up.
DN: We just have a bunch of athletes that could go and play other positions if called upon and do their job well. I think it's really going to come down to playing tough defense because we know defense wins championships. But, I also think it's going to come down to who's hitting, who can put the ball in play, who can make things happen and who can advance runners in scoring position. I think everybody's got to stay on their toes. There's someone right behind you who's right on you and there's not that much difference between a lot of these players. This is an unusual situation for this team to be in because we've not had this depth before. But I think it creates competition, but it also creates people really working hard in practice.
CalBears.com: Okay, enough about defense. Let's talk offense.
DN: Hopefully, Val will be a top hitter for us along with Jace Williams. Jolene had a great fall and I think that her bat will return up to its potential. Bre led our team in the fall as a freshman with her bat. Danielle Henderson Cheyenne Cordes should also contribute. Cheyenne led the junior national team in hitting and is the junior player of the year.
CalBears.com: Speaking of Cheyenne, how do you see her making the transition from the junior national scene to the competitive Pac-12?
DN: Cheyenne had a good fall, but had a great junior championship so I'm hoping that she's used to playing and feeling comfortable. I think that's the whole thing - when the kids get their uniform on for the first time. I think there's something that happens when you put that uniform on and you take the field for the first time.
CalBears.com: With all of these amazingly talented student-athletes, how does that depth affect things?
DN: The problem will be which ones do you want to play which game and keep them happy. Everybody's going to have to understand their role. Before, were you just played one position, and that was it. Now with all the talent, you wouldn't even hesitate on the next person in line because it wouldn't matter since there's no drop off in ability. I can never recall the ability to do that. It's going to be when they get their opportunities, whose bats are most consistent. That's going to be about the only thing from who's playing and who's not. But hopefully we'll be able to give people lots of opportunities, keep their bats in the line-ups also and bring people off the bench when we need a hit in the key situation. We don't have to take the out anymore. You've got enough swings in the season, you're not asking them to come through in this key situation. It's not the coaches that make the line-ups, it the players. It's what they do in those key situations that separate those that start and those that don't. You have to be willing to accept your role and contribute in any way that you can and reach your ultimate goal of winning a championship.
During the 30 days leading up to the first game of California softball's 2012 campaign on Feb. 10, CalBears.com will be posting a multitude of releases and features. To see all 30-for-30 releases and features in one place, please click here.