The "Unity '13" Tour is about to get started.
The third-ranked Cal softball team opens the 2013 season
Friday at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz., and after knocking on the door
of a Women's College World Series championship last season, the Bears are
unified in the singular goal of taking that final step this June.
"Last year, we were hungry. This year, we're hungrier," Cal
senior catcher Lindsey Ziegenhirt said. "We have really high expectations of
ourselves this year and we expect to meet them and exceed them. Everyone is working
together. It's exciting to be out here at practice."
The Bears have advanced to each of the past two Women's
College World Series, but last year's ouster stung more because they were
ranked No. 1 most of the season and many pegged them as the favorite heading
into the postseason. The team has adopted the team motto of "Unity 13," a
constant reminder to maintain solidarity throughout the 2013 season.
"They understand they're going to have to be a great team
together," Cal coach Diane Ninemire said. "We'll have some youth out there at
times, and our older players are going to have to be good leaders and help them
out. The team is really blending well together. We're really looking forward to
a great year."
While the Bears return a strong nucleus of returners, they
also will be moving on without their top three hitters in terms of batting
average from last season - Jamia Reid, Frani Echavarria and Valerie Arioto. In
Arioto, Cal loses arguably the top player in the country.
But perhaps most important, senior Jolene Henderson is still
in the circle for the Bears, and that alone makes Cal a championship contender.
Henderson is a two-time first team All-American with the endurance to pitch the
majority of the innings this season for the Bears. As a sophomore in 2011,
Henderson led the country with 333 1/3 innings pitched.
Henderson is a two-time Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year who has
led the nation in shutouts in each of the past two seasons.
"Jolene is one of the top pitchers in the nation," Ninemire
said. "She's a real workhorse out there for our team. She'll throw as many
games and as many innings as we need her to throw.
"She's the most durable pitcher I've ever had on this team. She
doesn't tire. She just keeps going, no matter how tired she is. She's just
highly motivated. She has an unbelievable work ethic. She's in great shape. I
think the more she throws, the better she gets. She is going to have plenty of
opportunity this year to pitch a number of games."
Arioto was also an accomplished pitcher - She started 24
games last season and went 20-3 with a 1.32 ERA. This year, the Bears don't
have an experienced No. 2 starter. Sophomore Nikki Owens and freshmen Nisa
Ontiveros and Taylor Lee will compete to give Henderson a break from the circle
from time to time.
But Henderson and the Bears have been down this road
recently. One of the reasons Henderson led the nation in innings pitched in
2011 is because Arioto missed the season with a broken leg. Without any other
viable options, Henderson ended up starting 40 of Cal's 45 games.
"My freshman year, I wanted to strike everybody out,"
Henderson said. "I've improved mentally a lot. I started thinking about what I can
control instead of trying to control everything. I've read a lot of mind books.
Everyone in college is so good. The mental side can give you an edge."
Despite the loss of some firepower, the Bears still have
threats up and down their lineup. Junior Britt Vonk is Cal's all-time leader in
batting average (.380). Sophomore right fielder Breana Kostreba was selected to
the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team last year after batting .294 with 13 home runs and
42 RBI. Third baseman Danielle Henderson, Jolene's younger sister, had 16
homers and was second on the team with 101 total bases last year.
"The attitude this year is we got there last year but now we
want to win it," Ziegenhirt said. "Not that we didn't want to win it last year,
but this year were even more motivated because we came so close. It's really
exciting to establish your own legacy. We can use the legacy of all the years
before, but every year is a new team and brings something different and exciting
for the season."
The Bears' first assignment this weekend will come against
Kentucky at 10:30 a.m. PT on Friday. Cal is also slated to play Cal State
Northridge, No. 14 Florida and Indiana.