Feb. 9, 2011
BERKELEY - When discussing the 2011 California softball team, the French music duo Daft Punk aptly describes this year's Golden Bears: Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.
While it may seem cliché, Cal spent the summer and fall improving and working harder than ever to get to the 2011 Women's College World Series. While they lost two starters and six letterwinners to graduation, the Bears added eight incredible freshmen to the mix.
With the taste of losing in Super Regionals to Georgia still lingers in the minds of the 11 returning letterwinners, the past is behind them and a long road to the postseason is in front of them. Cal head coach Diane Ninemire thinks the well-rounded talent on her field will help the Bears stay steady.
"We've added more speed and we're playing better defense because of the talent that we've added to the infield," Ninemire said. "I think that will be the key to be more consistent and better than in the past."
The seven returning starters benefitted from a successful run into the postseason, advancing to Super Regional play after rolling over the Columbus Regional. In addition to posting their 37th consecutive winning record in 2010, the Bears finished 10-11 in the Pac-10 Conference to tie for fourth. The Bears were one of the seven Pac-10 teams to earn an at-large bid to the postseason, marking their 25th consecutive trip to NCAA tournament, which is the second-longest streak in the nation.
Coming back for her junior season is Jamia Reid, who bested her own steals record last year with 48 and landed on the All-Pacific First Team. Also returning to the field are six of Cal's 10 All-Pac-10 teamers, including junior outfielder Frani Echavarria, junior utility Jace Williams and sophomore catcher Lindsey Ziegenhirt. A talented crop of eight freshmen will join the returners.
New Kids on the Block
The eight freshmen could practically field an exceptional team themselves, giving Ninemire much-needed depth and options for her starting line-up.
"We have some really highly talented newcomers," Ninemire said of the Class of 2014. "We picked up a lot more speed with our incoming class and they will really provide some power. It will be a great asset to what we already have on the team."
Here is what Ninemire had to say about each of the eight:
In the Circle
Last season, a junior and a freshman teamed up to pitch the majority of the season and it will stay on the younger side of things for 2011. Sophomore Jolene Henderson will spearhead the pitching rotation for the Bears with a preseason injury to All-American Valerie Arioto. Ninemire has no doubt that Henderson is ready to shoulder the responsibility of being the team's No. 1 pitcher.
"Jolene has come back stronger than ever," Ninemire noted of the sophomore right-hander. "With experience that she gained last year - pitching in some of our bigger games and having very good outings in the Pac-10 - she is very polished and ready to go this year. She's a real work horse and will definitely carry our team on her back. She has also improved her hitting and plays first base with great leadership."
"Arianna is getting better every day, and we look for her to come in and gain experience every time that she goes out there and get better each time," Ninemire said of Erceg. "Hopefully she and Cassandra will add a different twist to our pitching because all of them pitch differently."
Who's on First
With a crew of 19 different student-athletes at Ninemire's disposal, fans should expect the line-up to look different every game. Coaches and players alike note that it is a battle at every position for playing time, and with such distinguished resumes as the Bears', it is quite understandable.
Here is a look at who could potentially see playing time
The Road-Tested Bears
Leading the way for those eight freshmen will be the 11 returners. If last season is too far removed to recall who they are, CalBears.com is here to remind you:
Sixty Games Later
Other sports' schedules pale in comparison to what collegiate softball teams across the country have lined up for 2011. By the close of the regular season, most teams have played more than 40 games, and by the end of the 2010 postseason, the Bears had a 63-game record to their credit. As with all the other teams, Cal will play in a variety of tournaments with a few miscellaneous games sprinkled in before the ever challenging Pac-10 slate.
This season, the Bears will face off against 36 different teams, 15 of which went to the 2010 NCAA Tournament. Of those 15 teams that went dancing, seven of them advanced to Super Regionals and five of them moved onto the Women's College World Series. In addition to the defending national champion UCLA and runner-up Arizona, Cal will see WCWS participant Hawaii, Missouri and Washington.
"We have an exciting preseason," Ninemire noted of the games scheduled before Pac-10 Conference play begins. "In our tournaments, we face a good mix of ranked and unranked teams. We just want to go out and play solid defense and really put a lot of pressure on teams with our speed and get good RBI in with our power. We will be look for good pitching, solid defense, and good hitting performances to get us ready for another stellar Pac-10 season."
After a competitive nonconference slate, things will only get more difficult for the Bears for they play in the most challenging league in all the land - the Pac-10 Conference. Seven of the Conference's eight teams advanced to the postseason, of those seven teams, six made it to Super Regionals and three went to the WCWS. UCLA and Arizona represented the Pac-10 in fine fashion, playing against each other in the title series with the Bruins emerging as national champions.
In the preseason Pac-10 coaches' poll, Arizona and UCLA tied for first while Arizona State was third and California tied for fourth with Washington. All seven teams that went to the postseason earned preseason rankings with the USA Today/NFCA rankings noting UCLA as the No. 1 squad with the Arizona receiving top billing in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Collegiate Top-25 poll with neither team being a unanimous decision as it has been in years past. If Ninemire is correct, the conference schedule will be even more difficult than past years.
"I think the Pac-10 is stronger than ever," Ninemire noted. "I would say at least seven if not all eight teams will hopefully make the Tournament. There will never be a sure win out there; it's always going to be a real fight. I would imagine that UCLA, coming off a national title, will be just as strong as they've ever been. It's the same thing with Arizona. There is not a weak Pac-10 team, which helps us prepare. We'll use the preseason to get tuned up and be prepared to see the best competition in the country by the time that conference play starts."
The People Behind the Players
While the student-athletes team with talent, it is the coaching staff that guides those players on and off the field. Last season, Ninemire won her 1,000th game, making her the ninth coach in the history of Division I softball to notch 1,000 wins. Already the winningest coach - male or female - in all of Cal history for any sport, Ninemire now has a career record of 1,014-498 and is set for her 24th year as the Bears' head coach. Ninemire has overseen countless players, including 26 All-America selections, 156 All-Pac-10 players, 44 academic All-Americans and 90 All-Region choices.
"All of the coaches are excited about playing this year," Ninemire noted. "It's always great to have a staff with Tammy and John returning. Continuity helps build success and it's really great to have that in our program."
Also quickly becoming a familiar face at Levine-Fricke Field is first-year volunteer assistant coach Angie Jacobs. She brings 17 years of Division I coaching experience and the requisite softball expertise as well as the unique knowledge of what it means to be a Golden Bear.
"It's really great to have Angie joining our staff because she's a former player here at Cal," Ninemire said. "She will really help us out with catching, first base and hitting instruction. I look forward to working with all of the coaches this year."