Feb. 12, 1997
Bears Target Return to World Series in '97
After playing the underdog role for much of the 1996 campaign on its way to a fifth-place finish in the Women's College World Series, the Cal softball team enters 1997 hoping to maintain a higher level of excellence throughout the year.
The Golden Bears knocked off seven different Top 10 teams en route to earning an NCAA Regional title last year, despite a No. 11 regular-season ranking. Yet when all was settled, Cal proved it belonged among the elite teams in the country with a squad that featured only one senior.
This year, the Bears return starters at every position on the field and have added quality depth around the diamond as the team prepares to challenge for the Pacific-10 Conference title and make another run deep into the NCAA playoffs.
"For this year's team, our expectations are to get back to the College World Series," said head coach Diane Ninemire, who has led Cal to the NCAA Tournament in each of her previous nine seasons at the helm. "We feel like we have a very seasoned team coming back, and with the addition of three new freshmen, we hope that we can not only go back to the World Series, but go on to win a national championship."
In 1996, the Bears, who finished with a 41-23 overall record, proved they were capable of beating anybody in the country as they were the only unit to defeat all three teams to earn a No. 1 ranking during the year -- Arizona, Washington and UCLA. In the NCAA regionals, Cal beat third-ranked Fresno State twice to earn its first trip to the College World Series in four years.
With their proven record of success, the 1997 seniors -- pitcher Whitney Floyd, infielders Melanie McCart and Jessica Parker, and outfielders Karen Bonini and Dina Frandsen -- have a chance to win 40 games in a season for the fourth year in a row, a feat no other Cal class has ever accomplished.
"I think the level of confidence that our players have entering the season will definitely help," Ninemire said. "Having five seniors who have played in some critical games in the past can bring a level of leadership onto the field that will inspire the team to greater heights. Last year, they did a great job pulling together and finding a way to win. This year, they want to go out and show they can win on a consistent basis."
One player who certainly knows how to succeed against the toughest competition is Floyd, a two-time All-American left-hander who was 22-13 with a 1.40 ERA last year. During the regular season, Floyd beat both Arizona and Washington. However in the NCAA regionals, Floyd was at her best, tossing three complete games and allowing just two runs to lead Cal to the title. Then in the College World Series opener, she shutout No. 5 Southwestern Louisiana, 2-0.
"We are looking for Whitney to provide the leadership we need," Ninemire said. "She has the most experience of our pitchers and has proved she can get the big wins when she has to."
When Floyd is not pitching, sophomore Holly Yost will. After starting the year with a 6-0 record, she finished at 7-3 with a 1.83 ERA as all of her losses came against Top 3 teams. However, Yost, a second team all-region selection as a utility player, is not limited to using her right arm alone. She possesses a strong bat and will almost certainly hit for herself when she is pitching and even add some time in the outfield or as the designated player.
"I think Holly is a pitcher who will come into her own this year," Ninemire said. "She's going to play a key role for us, whether it's with her pitching or her hitting. This fall, her hitting was exceptional and I expect that to carry over through the spring."
Around the infield, Cal sports seniors at both first and third base. Senior Melanie McCart, who will share first base duties with junior Jenny Ackley, set a school record with nine home runs last year. A three-time second team All-Pac-10 pick, McCart has 18 career homers and needs just one more to tie the school's all-time mark of 19 set by Pam Reinoehl more than a decade ago.
Ackley, after earning second team All-America honors as a freshman in 1995 when she hit .353 with a school-record 47 RBI, batted .277 last year with 17 RBI. But after hard work during the offseason, Ackely enters 1997 showing much of the same form she did during her rookie year.
"I think the competition at first base has really increased," Ninemire said. "The two together will be able to provide some pretty good power in the middle of the lineup, and they give us the flexibility to play one or the other and not give up anything defensively. I think both of them are going to be key players for us this year."
On the opposite corner, senior Jessica Parker is the incumbent at third base. A second team All-Pac-10 choice last year, Parker hit a career-best .303 with six home runs and a team-high 37 RBI. She socked a solo homer to lift Cal to a 1-0 win over Washington in March and rapped a bases-loaded double to lead the Bears to a 4-1 victory over Long Beach State in the NCAA regionals.
"Jessica Parker had an outstanding year last year," Ninemire said. "She really had some big hits for us. She has always been the leader we've needed on the field to get the team charged up and focused on the task at hand."
Sophomore Carlyn Rojas, who had her season shortened by a shoulder injury last season, hopes to be able to return to play after a pair of surgeries. While she was healthy, Rojas saw action at both third base and outfield in 1996, batting .263 with two homers and 12 RBI in 34 games.
At second base, junior Kirsten Drake and freshman Lisa Iancin will compete for playing time. Drake shifted over from shortstop in the middle of last year and ranked fourth on the team in both runs (23) and doubles (7). Iancin is a prep All-American who batted .555 as a senior at Charter Oak High School in Covina last year.
"Lisa is a real consistent hitter who is not real flashy, but seems to get the job done," Ninemire said. "Kirsten did an outstanding job at the end of the season for us, learning to play second base in the middle of the year. Kirsten's bat is strong enough that we need to find a way to keep her in the lineup even when she's not playing second."
Sophomore Katie May will likely find herself at shortstop when the season gets underway in February, but she will certainly find a challenge from freshman Paige Bowie, who will join the softball squad when her duties with the Cal basketball team come to an end. May batted .258 with two homers and 16 RBI last year and showed plenty of athletic agility in the field. Bowie was a first team all-state player at Clovis West High School in Fresno where she batted .350 and did not commit an error in the field as a senior.
"I thought Katie really stepped it up as the season went along," Ninemire said. "We're hoping her hitting will steadily improve, and I think her defense has gotten better. When Paige comes back from basketball, she gives us the option of having her as the leadoff hitter because she has great speed and can slap from the left side and hit right-handed, as well."
Behind the plate, sophomore Megumi Takasaki returns after handling leadoff duties a year ago. An honorable mention All-Pac-10 selection, Takasaki batted .298 with a team-best 10 doubles and 29 runs.
"Hopefully, we'll be able to move her down in the lineup because of hitting ability, maybe put her into more of an RBI spot," Ninemire said. "She's also come back with some improved skills behind the plate."
Alongside Takasaki is sophomore Theresa Kilgariff, who has improved her strength, speed and quickness behind the plate. Kilgariff appeared in eight games last year, but should gain more action this season.
In the outfield, Ninemire has plenty of choices available to put together the best unit. Seniors Karen Bonini and Dina Frandsen, as well as sophomore Maiko Bristow, comprised the starting lineup last year. But that trio will share time with junior Valerie Nicklas, sophomore Michelle Ishihara and freshman Meredith Mollner. In addition, Yost and Drake may also see some action there.
"I think we have a lot of players who can play the outfield and it gives us some different options if need be," Ninemire said. "I think someone who has really improved for us is Karen Bonini. She's been playing a significant role in left field for us, but her hitting has really improved over the fall. Her focus has really been good."
Bonini, who hit .298 as a sophomore, fell to just .150 last year. However, she may have had the biggest hit of the season when her single in the bottom of the ninth brought home the winning run in the NCAA regional final against Fresno State.
Frandsen has already played in 160 games during her career and has a been a consistent performer in right field for the Bears. Bristow owns the strongest arm among the outfielders and ranked fourth on the team with a .267 batting average last season.
Nicklas, another potential leadoff hitter, has good slapping and bunting ability. One of the most versatile members of the team, she has also seen action at catcher and the middle infield during her Cal career.
Rounding out the group are Ishihara, a squad member last year who can also play catcher and earned all-state honors in Hawaii in high school, and Mollner, a three-time all-league performer at Salinas High School.
With a veteran team that returns all but one player from last year's College World Series squad, Cal possesses the depth, experience and leadership necessary for another shot at the title.
And this year, the Bears enter the season with the added confidence necessary to make a return trip a reality.