Jan. 27, 2012
Junior pitcher Jolene Henderson and catcher Lindsey Ziegenhirt have many things in common with fellow pitchers and catchers across the country. Nonverbal communication cues, pitch signals and a familiarity that comes with throwing to the same person game after game. Henderson and Ziegenhirt have a leg - or an arm or two - up on the competition for they have been battery mates since they were seven-years-old.
Growing up in Elk Grove, Calif., a suburb of Sacramento, the pair transitioned together from rec ball to the more prestigious American Softball Association teams, traveling all over the country, to prep teammates at Sheldon High School before coming to Cal. Once the two began the recruiting process, they knew they wanted to go to the same college. When Henderson verbally committed to joining the Golden Bears as a freshman, Ziegenhirt followed suit the next year.
Two different national rankings made the choice an easy one for both Henderson and Ziegenhirt. Cal's ranking as the No. 1 public institution would guarantee both top-notch academics and a degree that would ensure success after their college days came to a close. The Golden Bears' perennial top-10 ranking on the softball field meant they would be joining an established powerhouse that makes a run in the postseason each year and plays in the Pac-10, which is easily the preeminent conference for collegiate softball. Both felt at home in serene Strawberry Canyon when they attended youth camps at Levine-Fricke Field as well as on their official recruiting trips.
"What I liked most was the family atmosphere of the team, and the coaches genuinely care about us in all aspects of our lives and not just about winning softball," Ziegenhirt said of head coach Diane Ninemire and her assistants. "The girls had a really great family connection besides just being teammates on the field."
With all of the things that make the Cal program attractive to recruits across the board, there was also one important factor involved. Ninemire welcomed Henderson and Ziegenhirt with open arms.
"I wanted her catching me through college because we have a really good trust relationship on the field," Henderson noted. "Throwing to Lindsey is second nature now; we just know what we need to do. We don't have to say things, we'll use looks. She'll do something to encourage me or tell me to pick it up, or she'll walk out and tell a joke to bring it all together and help me relax, take some of the pressure off."
That great pitcher-catcher relationship almost never was. When Henderson tells of the days when she was still learning the rudimentary skills of the game, she is quick to point out that as a novice player she was nowhere near as skilled as she is today.
"I was terrible," Henderson said. "I wanted to quit, but my parents made me keep going with it. I would sit down in the outfield and play with the flowers, so they moved me to infield. I threw really hard. I would hit the max people and over the backstop sometimes so because of me, they made up a rule if you hit five people, you were taken out of the game."
As Henderson grew, so did her skill set. She warmed the bench during her first years of ASA ball but gradually started earning her way into the line-up until it all came together. Things work the same way now for the righty as they did then.
"I do everything and one day it clicks; I have to feel it," Henderson said.
Once she started feeling it, the pieces came together and she began working with a pitching coach. From there, Henderson was an 11-year-old playing with a 14 and under team and then a 14 year-old-old playing with the 18 and unders.
Together, Henderson and Ziegenhirt took their 16U team - the Lady Magic - to a national title. At Sheldon High School, they won sections their sophomore and junior year and were runners-up in their freshman and senior seasons. The pair took SHS to national prominence for the Huskies garnered No. 1 rankings not just in the Sacramento region but in the nation.
Family played a role for both Henderson and Ziegenhirt staying with softball as their sport. Henderson's father, Joe, coached her for years and her younger sister, Danielle, was Jolene's teammate on multiple teams, as well, and has joined Jolene and Lindsey in Berkeley this year.
For Ziegenhirt, there has always been one constant - her mother, Laura, who served as a coach for the majority of Lindsey's pre-Cal days. Once Ziegenhirt moved onto the Pac-10 and Berkeley - 90 miles west of Elk Grove, Calif. - Laura was no longer in the dugout, but to Lindsey, things did not change too much.
"I always had my mom - rec league, ASA and high school," Ziegenhirt said. "But she comes to all the games. We debrief about the games sometimes a couple days later. I don't miss it too much because she's there anyway."
Between Lindsey's mother and Jolene's family attending the multiple tournaments and making road trips, the familial entourage helped smooth the transition to college life for the two. If you did not know they were freshmen last year, you would not expect it.
During their freshman campaign, Ziegenhirt caught every single game - all 63 - and Henderson landed on the Louisville Slugger/NFCA Division I All-Region first team, the All-Pac-10 second team and the Pac-10 All-Freshman team. Ziegenhirt was an All-Pac-10 honorable mention and named to the All-Freshman Team after she was second on the squad with 15 homers, 58 RBI, .562 slugging percentage, 13 doubles and 109 bases.
"We're fortunate to have a catcher of Lindsey's caliber," Ninemire said. "She provides great leadership with her catching skills and brings a big bat with her."
Henderson and Ziegenhirt matched their first-year outing with an exceptional sophomore season in 2011. Henderson pitched more than 85 percent of Cal's innings, posting a 0.99 ERA and leading the nation with 40 wins.
"I think that Jolene had a tremendous performance last year," Ninemire said. "She gave everything she had. I'm just so proud of her effort, tenacity and grit."
Ziegenhirt slugged .400 with 33 RBI and eight homers all the while producing a .997 fielding percentage.
"Lindsey did a great job last year with most of the catching duties falling on her shoulders," Ninemire said. "She did a great job running the infield and managing our pitchers last year."
Without Henderson and Ziegenhirt's prowess, there is no way the Bears would have advanced to Oklahoma City in 2011, which was the first time since 2005 that the Cal squad played in the Women's College World Series.
For their junior campaign, there is no question what the pair wants: a return ticket to the Women's College World Series. Ziegenhirt's powerful bat and confident direction behind the plate combined with Henderson's leadership and experience in the circle pack a one-two punch that will help the Bears on the base paths to Oklahoma City this season.
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