Trevor Hildenberger has become an important piece of Cal's pitching staff this season, and he owes it all to teammate Justin Jones' absent-mindedness.
It was one year ago this week that Hildenberger stood behind Cal's bullpen during practice and watched Jones take his mid-week side session. Jones had misplaced his jersey so was wearing shortstop Mike Reuvekamp's No. 37 instead. That led to a discussion about the significance of jersey numbers.
"I asked (pitching coach) Mike Neu what he thinks of when he thinks of No. 26 (Hildenberger's number), and he said he thinks of a side-arm pitcher from UCLA," Hildenberger said. "I added that there was a side-armer on Washington who was No. 26, too. He said maybe I should throw my bullpen that way. I tried it out and it felt good."
And with that, the right-hander who had thrown 12 2/3 career innings in two seasons began to carve a new path that now has him entrenched as the No. 2 starting pitcher in the Cal rotation.
Hildenberger hasn't thrown overhand since that bullpen session. Shortly after the end of the 2012 season, Hildenberger joined the Bend Elks off the West Coast League. He spent the summer learning his new style of pitching, working with teammate Josh McAllister of Arizona State, who also is a side-armer.
"When I got there, I had thrown sidearm for a week," Hildenberger said. "I had a lot of work to do. Facing batters is weird for the first time. I hit the first batter I ever faced. Not on the first pitch, but on the second or third. Throwing 15 years overhand, you get used to a certain release point. And then you have no idea where to release the ball."
Hildenberger said it took about a month for him to have consistent command of his pitches as a side-armer. But by the time he returned to Berkeley for the fall, he had gone from throwing in the low 80s to mid-upper 80s with his fastball. He began the 2013 season as one of the Bears' biggest weapons out of the bullpen.
Hildenberger excelled as a reliever for most of this season. But after Cal experienced some injuries to its starting staff, head coach David Esquer was in search of help in the rotation. Hildenberger, who had averaged just 1 1/3 innings per outing during his first 23 appearances of the year, was allowed to go four innings of relief in a game against Oregon on April 12. He didn't allow a baserunner and struck out five.
That convinced Esquer to insert Hildenberger into the rotation, and he's held down the spot ever since. Hildenberger will make his fifth and final start of the season Saturday against Stanford at Evans Diamond. The Bears and Cardinal open a three-game series Friday night.
"We had no intention of having him start at all this year," Neu said. "We thought he'd be a great back end of the bullpen guy. He did a great job. But we felt like we didn't have a whole lot of options (in the rotation), and he was one of our best guys. We needed him to start, and he's taken it from there."
Hildenberger made his first start April 20 against Washington State, allowing four earned runs in four innings.
"I was terrified," Hildenberger said. "I hadn't started since high school. I didn't have a wind-up. It was a hot day. I was sweating like a pig. I couldn't feel my arm because my adrenaline was rushing so much. I walked the leadoff batter and had to just step back and take a deep breath and realize that this is no different than the seventh inning when you have to get three outs and go back to the dugout."
Hildenberger then allowed just one earned run in seven innings in his second start at Washington. As a starter, he's 1-1 with a 4.70 ERA. Take away his start against Washington St. and his ERA is 3.79.
Hildenberger hasn't decided if Saturday will be his last career start. He has one year left of athletic eligibility but has just seven units left to earn his degree in American Studies. Hildenberger will go through graduation ceremonies Saturday morning and then start the Bears' game that night.
"This Saturday is going to be weird because I have my final start against our rival school on the day I graduate college," Hildenberger said. "It's like everything is culminating on one day. This is my first year with significant innings. What would make me come back the most is going to a regional. I just have to talk about it with my family."
Since throwing sidearm is relatively new to Hildenberger, there still is probably substantial room for improvement. Neu said major-league scouts are already asking about him.
"Teams are always looking for a different look," Neu said. "He's having success throwing from a different arm slot, so teams may take a look at him. There are sidearm guys who haven't been top prospects in college but have had a lot of success. We'd love to have him back for another year. It'd be fun to see what he can do."
When Cal tennis player Riki McLachlan boarded a plane for the NCAA Tournament at Florida last week, he didn't know if he was going as a spectator or participant.
In fact, it was less than 24 hours before the Bears' first-round match against Florida State that it was determined that he would indeed make his first appearance on a tennis court in three months.
Dispelling the conventional wisdom that his season was over when he dislocated his left kneecap during a match against USC on Feb. 8, McLachlan played in Cal's first-round win over the Seminoles, winning the first set at No. 6 singles against Florida State's Michael Rinaldi before the match was stopped in the second set when the Bears clinched the team victory.
McLachlan, who formed the nation's No. 7 doubles team along with his brother, Ben, before the injury, will be back on the court Thursday when the No. 18 Bears (16-9) play No. 2 Virginia (26-0) in the Round of 16 in Urbana, Ill.
"He wasn't ready to play when we left," Cal coach Peter Wright said. "He literally got better each day. It wasn't until the day before that I said, 'Riki, you're in there tomorrow.' It really shows the strength of one young man and his desire to help the team."
Wright felt the Bears were a top-10 team this season, and McLachlan was a big reason for that. A senior and team captain, McLachlan figured to be a key contributor in both singles and doubles. But his season went down the wrong road while jumping for an overhead against the Trojans.
"It was just one of those freak things that happens in sports," McLachlan said. "It's a shot I've done a thousand times. On that one occasion, I jumped a little higher and something strange happened."
McLachlan began the arduous rehab process with no guarantees he would be able to return this season. He wasn't redshirting, meaning this was his last chance to play college tennis. Working closely with Cal athletic trainer Elaine Garcia, McLachlan overcame some sluggish days early in the rehab to make enormous progress. Garcia accompanied the team to Florida and continued to work with him until the last minute.
"Our guys were so excited to see him back," Wright said. "To feel him back out on the court, to hear guys yelling his name when he won points - it was extraordinary from an emotional standpoint. The team was boosted tremendously by it. I can't say enough about how much effort Riki put into getting back. It was day to day, hour to hour."
McLachlan was back on the court for the Bears' second-round win against Denver, but his singles match never made it past the first set after Cal clinched the victory over the Pioneers. Still, McLachlan's ability to get through last weekend and prove he is healthy again should work wonders for his confidence Thursday.
"It was three months but it felt like six or nine months," McLachlan said. "I was more excited than anything. It makes you appreciate being out there and being healthy. It's a lot of fun to compete again."
BERKELEY - Olympic swimmer Caitlin Leverenz and former goalie Lauren Hein were multiple honorees at the annual Student-Athlete Academic Honors Luncheon on Tuesday at Haas Pavilion.
Leverenz, who won a bronze medal in the 200-meter individual medley during last year's Summer Olympics in London, led Cal to consecutive NCAA championships in 2011 and 2012 and is a Pac-12 champion in multiple events. Tuesday, Leverenz was honored with a Pac-12 post-graduate scholarship as well as being named the recipient of the Anna Espenshade Award, given annually to a female student-athlete for "successful integration of academic and athletic pursuits."
Hein, who graduated early in December, won the Neufeld Scholar Athlete Award for having the highest GPA of any graduating female student-athlete on campus (3.982). She also was the recipient of an Oscar Geballe Postgraduate Scholarship, which recognizes devotion to Cal and the combination of scholarship and athletic competition. Furthermore, Hein received the Golden Bear Individual Award for having the highest GPA on the women's soccer team.
The luncheon, held on the gym floor, honored the best student-athletes on campus with several awards and scholarships. Athletic director Sandy Barbour handed out the Tom Hansen Pac-12 Conference Medals to swimmer Tom Shields and women's basketball player Layshia Clarendon. The conference medal is awarded to a male and female student-athlete at each Pac-12 institution who best exhibits the combination of performance and achievement in scholarship, athletics and leadership.
Four student-athletes received Pac-12 post-graduate scholarships. Along with Leverenz, conference scholarships also were awarded to women's volleyball's Robin Rostratter, men's swimming's Isaac Howell and men's soccer's Kyle Marsh.
There were two other recipients of the Oscar Geballe scholarship - women's swimming's Sara Isakovic and softball's Lindsey Ziegenhirt.
Leilani Alferos of the women's gymnastics team won the Walter A. Haas Jr. Community Service Award, given annually to the student-athlete with the best contribution to community service. Alferos, a transfer from Oregon State, has been heavily involved in the community both in Berkeley and Corvallis, Ore. She has been involved with the Relay For Life, Wheel-A-Thon, Special Olympics and recycling before football games. As part of the Community Outreach Committee, she helped with Coastal Clean-Up, College Day, Hot Meals and the Blood Donation Drive. She also served as a captain for the "Jog For Jill" annual fundraiser.
Tierra Rogers of the women's basketball team won the Joseph M. Kavanagh Award for the most academically improved student-athlete.
Marin Balarin of the men's water polo team won the Jake Gimbel Award for the combination of athletic and academic pursuits. Michael Perretta of the men's crew team was the male recipient of the Neufeld Scholar Athlete Award.
Ziegenhirt also served as the guest speaker for the event. She spoke of the hardships of losing her starting job as the softball team's catcher and then putting in the work needed to reclaim her spot. Ziegenhirt also discussed her work with the SAGE mentorship program, helping a local fourth-grade student in and out of the classroom and how the experience confirmed her aspirations to go into teaching.
"It's always an honor to be recognized for working hard in the classroom," Ziegenhirt said. "Being a student-athlete is difficult, so it's really great that the university puts this on for us so we can be recognized for all the hard work we put in."
The event was emceed by Cal academic advisor Cassidy Raher.
"As we read off the awards and hand out scholarships every year, it's always amazing to listen to the accolades that they have, the biographies that encompass their careers here at Cal and obviously their pursuits after college," Raher said. "Berkeley is the No. 1 public institution in the country for a reason. For these student-athletes to accept the challenge of competing in the classroom day in and day out and obviously on the field, on the court and in the pool, it's certainly a tremendous opportunity and a tremendous honor."
There are a lot of obvious good things about doing well in school at Cal. But for Cal catcher Lindsey Ziegenhirt, the last couple of years it also helped maintain her sanity.
Thursday, Ziegenhirt was named a Capital One All-Academic District 8 First Team selection for the second time in her career. The senior has a 3.77 cumulative GPA during her time in Berkeley.
Those classroom successes were magnified during her sophomore and junior years when she struggled on the diamond for the Bears. A high school All-American from Elk Grove, Calif., Ziegenhirt opened eyes during her freshman season when she had 15 home runs and 58 RBI and was named to the Pac-10 All-Freshman Team.
Always solid defensively, Ziegenhirt struggled at the plate each of the next two seasons. She batted just .219 as a sophomore and dropped to .156 last season. Her power numbers suffered as well.
"If I was losing confidence in softball, I knew I was going to kill it in the classroom," Ziegenhirt said. "It helped me keep my sanity."
Now a senior, Ziegenhirt is killing it both with her studies and on the field. Ziegenhirt is tied for fourth in the Pac-12 with 15 homers and ranks fifth with 49 RBI heading into this weekend's series against Stanford, the final three home games of her career. Her .311 batting average ranks third on the team.
"Lindsey has just gone back to her old form," Cal coach Diane Ninemire said. "She's worked extremely hard this year to get back where she knows she can be. She's feeling more relaxed and more comfortable at the plate. Everything has fallen into place for her. I'm just happy for her that she's back to her old form."
Ironically, it may have been one of the personality traits that helps her do so well in the classroom that contributed to her struggles at the plate. Ziegenhirt is a self-proclaimed perfectionist, which allows her to do bang-up work in school. But she said that proved to be a detriment athletically, as she let her frustrations and self-criticism snowball during her tough sophomore and junior years.
"I've always known that being positive and staying in a good mental state was something I needed to do," Ziegenhirt said. "But I'm also kid of a perfectionist, so once I start struggling a little bit, frustration takes over and it gets harder for me to get back into a positive mindset."
Faced with her last chance as a senior to get back on track, Ziegenhirt made the conscious decision to focus on the fun nature of playing college softball. She also said having an offseason to change things up is easier to do during the rigors of the jam-packed schedule of the regular season.
"It's hard to figure stuff out in the middle of a season that moves so quickly," she said. "I knew I could play better. It really was just a process of maturing and figuring more stuff out about myself as a player. Unfortunately, it took two years instead of two months. But I'm glad it happened when it did and I wouldn't change anything."
There's no question Ziegenhirt is having fun now. She's one of the Bears captains and their leader both offensively and defensively. And she is helping the Bears put together another fine season. Cal heads into the weekend ranked No. 12 in the country with a 35-12 overall record.
"She's a good example that I've used with other players," Ninemire said. "When they get into that part of their career when they are not playing well, they can look at Lindsey for strength. If you put in the time and try to stay positive, you can work through it and eventually good things will happen. You just have to make the commitment and have the dedication to work through it."