Feb. 15, 1997
1998 Cal Softball Season Outlook
If there is one word that excites head coach Diane Ninemire about the 1998 California softball season it would be "depth."
A year after watching a stream of players head off the field with an assortment of injuries, the Golden Bears now sport a 17-player roster that displays a high level of ability at every position. And perhaps most importantly, Cal has four pitchers who are capable of beating any team in the country.
"I think a good thing about this year's team is that we have a lot of talent and a lot of depth, which we haven't always had," said Ninemire, who enters her 11th season at a the helm with a career record of 408-225. "We're going to be able to play more people in the lineup and keep people fresh. We've never been able to do that in the past. When you play the same lineup every game, it takes a toll on the players. I think this will keep everybody sharper and more competitive."
Last year, Cal faced adversity almost from the first pitch of the season. Third baseman Carlyn Rojas (shoulder) and shortstop Paige Bowie (hand) never made it to the field after undergoing surgery. Then after just two weeks of action, All-American pitcher Whitney Floyd was forced to the sidelines with a knee injury, only to be followed less than a month later by utility player Valerie Nicklas with a concussion.
The loss of Floyd left Holly Yost as Cal's primary pitcher. And although Yost performed admirably -- she was 29-21 on the mound and led the Bears with a .327 batting average -- the toll of throwing so many innings eventually wore her down. Still, Cal pulled together to compile a 36-26 overall record, reach the final of its NCAA regional and earn a No. 11 national ranking.
"I think a lot of people thought we were going to throw in the towel last year, especially after Whitney got hurt," said Ninemire. "But I think it made our team stronger because we saw we could succeed without having a top gun in there. Hopefully, the players learned something about themselves that will make them stronger and bring more confidence into this season. This year, we have the depth to overcome almost any adversity."
Now that Floyd is back at full strength after receiving a medical redshirt year and Yost is prepared to handle a more manageable load, the Bears are primed to make another run at the College World Series. In addition, the 1998 pitching staff will be bolstered by freshman Nicole DiSalvio, a three-time all-state player from Corona, and junior Tricia Hunt, a transfer from Maryland who can also play third base.
"For the first time in all the years I've been here, I can actually say we have four quality pitchers who can go out and be successful against any team in the country," Ninemire said. "That's a luxury we've never had before. We won't have to rely on one or two arms."
Floyd, though, will be likely return to her role as the ace of the staff. During her last healthy campaign in 1996, she was 22-13 with a 1.40 ERA, leading Cal to a tie for fifth place in the College World Series. Including a 23-12 record in 1995, Floyd will aim for her third 20-win season in '98.
Floyd enters the season with a career mark of 61-38 and a good chance to move up to third on Cal's all-time victory list behind Olympia gold medalist Michele Granger (119 wins) and Leslie Partch (92). She also needs just 22 more strikeouts to become the sixth player in school history to have 500 or more in a career.
"I think a big story for us is the return of Whitney Floyd, someone on the mound who brings a lot of experience to the team," said Ninemire. "She looks healthy and she's throwing very well with good zip on the ball. She's going to be a big part of our success this year."
Yost had an outstanding season in her own right last year, earning all-tournament honors at the NCAA regional and second team accolades from the Pac-10. Cal's pitcher of record in the Bears final 27 games of the year, Yost set a school record by appearing in 56 games overall, and she stopped just short of the Cal mark for innings pitched with 319.3.
During the year, Yost defeated eight teams that made the NCAA Tournament, including a 7-0 shutout of UCLA and a 6-5 win over Washington. She also pitched complete games in both of Cal's victories in the NCAA Tournament.
At the plate, Yost was equally impressive, leading the Bears with a .327 average, up from .239 as a freshman. She tied for second on the squad with three homers and also drove in 23 runs.
DiSalvio is perhaps the hardest thrower on the team and is coming off an impressive senior season in high school when she went 27-2 with a 0.13 ERA for Corona HS. Hunt, although she hasn't pitched since high school, worked out there during the fall practice sessions and will likely see most of her action as a relief specialist.
Offensively, Cal will present a much different look in 1998 -- one that adds the elements of speed and slapping to go with power.
"I think people are going to see that the Cal attack will be much more balanced," Ninemire said. "I'm not saying it's perfect yet, but I think we've made great strides in that direction. Hopefully, with the increase in speed and bat control, we'll be better all the way around."
Junior catcher Megumi Takasaki returns as the Bears leadoff hitter after batting .314 with seven steals in eight attempts last year. One of the steadiest members of the Cal lineup and owner of a .306 career average, Takasaki should also benefit from the addition of 1996 U.S. Olympian and former Cal All-American catcher Gillian Boxx to the coaching staff.
"Megumi's hitting is how it's always been -- very consistent with a lot of pop off the bat," Ninemire said. "I've thought about moving her down in the batting order where she could drive in more runs, but it just seems that our team gets going when she's our leadoff hitter."
First base will be handled by senior Jenny Ackley and junior Maiko Bristow. Ackley ranks third on Cal's career list with 90 RBI and tops all returning players with eight home runs. A second team All-American as a freshman in 1995 when she batted .353, Ackley should become the fifth player at Cal to have more than 200 hits as she enters the season with 178.
Bristow has started in center field the past two years, but worked out at first base in the fall and has adapted quickly to the new position. After batting .267 as a freshman, she played defense only most of the time last year. But her hitting ability showed a great deal of improvement during fall practices, and the coaches are excited about her potential for 1998.
"Maiko has been a pleasant surprise for us," said Ninemire. "She played first base only a little bit in high school, but she caught on quickly there in the fall. One of her other big improvements has been her hitting. She really started turning on the ball and hitting with power."
The middle of Cal's starting infield returns intact with sophomore Lisa Iancin at second base and junior Katie May at shortstop. Iancin batted .307 and led the squad with nine stolen bases in her first season at the collegiate level. One of the toughest players in the Pac-10 to strikeout, Iancin only had seven strikeouts in 179 at-bats last year. She also displayed an ability to hit in the clutch with 10 hits in her final 15 at-bats of the regular season when Cal was making a drive for an NCAA Tournament berth.
May began her career as a second baseman, but has started as shortstop for Cal the last season and a half. She is a steady player who possesses a good amount of power with her bat, as she has 14 doubles and three home runs over her career.
"Lisa is a very solid ball player," said Ninemire. "I see her developing her leadership kills and becoming a more confident player this year. Katie has also taken on more of a leadership role now that she's a junior."
Others who will challenge for playing time in the middle of the infield are redshirt-freshman Paige Bowie and freshman Pauline Duenas. Bowie, who will join the softball team after she completes her responsibilities as a forward on the Cal basketball team, was a first team all-state player at Clovis West HS in Fresno. As a senior in 1996, she hit .350 and had a 1.000 fielding percentage.
Duenas can play almost anywhere in the field, but will see most of her action at second or third base. She was also chosen first team all-state after her senior year at Hilltop HS in Chula Vista after batting .460 with 39 runs in 28 games.
"I think a lot of people are going to underestimate Pauline, but she definitely plays like a bigger player," Ninemire said of the 4-10 Duenas. "She has good hands and is very quick -- just a real solid ball player."
At third base, the Bears will be able to choose between junior transfer Tricia Hunt and sophomore Carlyn Rojas, who is returning after a redshirt season when she underwent a pair of shoulder surgeries.
Hunt was an All-ACC player at Maryland and helped the Terrapins to the 1997 ACC Tournament title. She batted .312 as a freshman and is a perfect 10-for-10 in stolen base attempts over her career.
Rojas provides quite a bit of offensive firepower for the Bears. During her freshman year in 1996, she had two home runs in 80 at-bats while hitting .263.
Ninemire has a number of options in setting up the outfield. Freshman Amber Phillips, perhaps the fastest player the Bears have ever had, has the inside track in center field, while in right field, senior Kirsten Drake is the returning starter after hitting .277 with 24 sacrifice bunts in '97. Drake, who hopes to be at full strength following offseason shoulder surgery, will also be one of Cal's top power hitters as she has six career home runs.
Others to look for in the outfield include junior Valerie Nicklas, sophomore Meredith Mollner and freshman Ty Hunter. Nicklas has played every position from catcher to shortstop to outfield. She is a hard worker whose best assets are her hustle and enthusiasm.
"Val is a gutsy little player," said Ninemire. "She gains a lot of respect from her teammates because of her work ethic. I see her being a big factor in the success of our program."
Mollner joined Cal as a walk-on last season and quickly established herself the Bears top pinch runner. This year, she should see more action in the field as she continues to develope more consistency with her swing. Hunter joins Cal from Skyline HS in Oakland where she hit .544 with seven homers in 20 games as a senior. She is a speedy player who also has a very strong arm.