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May 27, 2012
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BERKELEY -- There were no dog piles. There were no whoops and hoots of excitement, nor were there ululations of relief. There were only handshakes and resolute, ever-so-slight reflexive nods of heads, just barely bobbing the bows on 20 ponytails. They're not the best. Not yet. They still have work to do.
By securing its 56th win of the season with a 2-0 Super Regional-clinching victory over Washington on a Cheyenne Cordes two-run home run, the California softball team tied the most wins in a single season in program history. The co-holder of that record? The 2002 Women's College World Series championship squad. No, this bunch isn't done. Not by a long shot.
"There's definitely more to be done," Cordes said. "We still have to play other games at the World Series to get to the championship game."
This team has scored the most runs (407), hit the most home runs (80), knocked in the most RBI (361), tallied the most total bases (817) and has registered the highest ever fielding percentage (.981) of any Bears team in history. But, as Cal shook the hands of the Huskies and trotted around the outfield fence of Levine-Fricke Field, there was a sense of calm about the team, a feeling of resolute purpose. This was not the final destination. This was just a pit stop.
"Not too much celebration, because we're going to have to hold off until that final game," Cordes said.
Despite getting squeezed early and allowing two walks and a single to load the bases in the bottom of the first, junior starting pitcher Jolene Henderson -- Drysdale with a Ponytail -- was ever her competitive self, and wasn't too proud to get a little help from her friends while throwing 35 pitches.
"She got high pitch counts and she wasn't getting her corners -- her strikes -- called for her," Ninemire said. "It was a pretty tight zone today, and she had excessive pitches, really."
With just one out and the bases juiced, Henderson got an assist from little sister Danielle Henderson, who plucked a liner off the bat of powerful Hooch Fagaly out of the air for the second out.
"The fans were starting to get really rowdy," Jolene Henderson said. "We went through a lot of adversity, especially in the first couple of innings, and I think it's just going to make our team so much stronger, because we fought through that. They came up and made these big plays. We would have been down, especially in the first inning."
With the count 3-1 to Shawna Wright, Jolene Henderson served up a fat one to the Huskies catcher, who sent a would-be bases-clearing double into left field. Lightning-quick Jamia Reid broke in and made a circus catch on the drive for the third out, just an eyelash away from allowing the ball to drop to the turf.
"Three, probably; it would have been a grand slam," Jolene Henderson chirped about how many runs her left fielder saved.
"Things weren't going our way, so I was like, 'OK, if anything comes up here, I'm catching it, no matter what,'" Reid said. "If I'm going on my knees, I'm going on my knees. If I'm diving, I'm diving. I just ran really, really hard, flipped my glove and caught it. It wasn't going to drop. It wasn't going to drop."
After that, Jolene Henderson did not allow a single ball out of the infield for the rest of the game. As she turned on the heat, so did senior Washington starting pitcher Bryana Walker. Walker held the Bears hitless for four innings, allowing two walks and three base runners.
In the top of the fifth, though, the juggernaut finally shook itself awake, if for but a moment.
Freshman right fielder Breana Kostreba led off the frame with a 2-2 single up the middle, and Ninemire pinch-ran for her with speedy Elia Reid. With the swift-footed twin on second, Danielle Henderson swung at the first pitch she saw and popped out to second. Hot-hitting catcher Victoria Jones -- who went 4-for-11 with a double and a home run during the regional round - then flew out to center on a 1-0 offering. Enter: Cordes.
The freshman shortstop -- who had just one hit in her last 20 at-bats -- stroked a 2-2 fastball over the scoreboard in left field for a two-run jack, her seventh of the year. Five of Cal's seven runs during the Super Regional came via the longball.
"I just went up to the plate, nice and relaxed, because if you go up there pressing, you normally mess up," Cordes said. "I just went up there and I waited for my pitch and she gave me my pitch."
Which was what, exactly?
"Right down the middle," Cordes giggled. "It's a thing that, prior to coming to Cal, that I've dreamed about. I never thought exactly that it would become a reality, but it feels good."
Jamia Reid then slapped a single up the center of the diamond and designated player Britt Vonk laid down a picture-perfect bunt to the left side to put two on for powerful Valerie Arioto, but the single-season home run queen popped out to short to end the threat.
Two runs, though, was all Jolene Henderson needed, as she blazed through the final three innings, striking out two and allowing just two infield singles. Henderson needed 132 pitches in her fifth straight playoff win, and moved to 36-2 on the season with the complete-game shutout.
"We've been able to ride on her shoulders on the mound," Ninemire said. "She's just a tremendous pitcher. She gets better as she pitches more, and last week, when we played Arkansas, that was the first time that Jolene threw a doubleheader back-to-back, but, I believe, as she goes on and she pitches more, you will see that she will get stronger and she'll be more precise and she'll get really tuned up now, getting into the College World Series. She also has an excellent counterpart in Val Arioto to back her up, so between the two of them, I know that they will do a great job on the mound for us."
The seventh inning was not without incident, though, as with two outs, pinch hitter Taylor Smith sent a hard grounder to senior second baseman Jace Williams at second. Williams -- herself a former Husky -- was unable to find the handle on the hard hopper off her chest, allowing Smith to reach first. Jolene Henderosn, though, won a six-pitch battle with left fielder Victoria Hayward, inducing a groundout to little sis Danielle at third, touching off a raucous celebration in the stands that stood in stark contrast to the businesslike congratulations on the field.
Cal now moves on to Oklahoma City for a Thursday date with LSU on the first day of the Women's College World Series, the Bears' second straight trip to college softball's main event after a five-year absence.
The Tigers (39-23) downed Missouri 3-1 on Sunday in the third game of their Super Regional, after winning the first game 6-1 and falling 5-1 in the second. LSU is a light-hitting squad, with a startlingly-low .221 team batting average and 13 total home runs -- two fewer than Danielle Henderson's season total. The Tigers, though, are lights-out in the circle with a 1.51 team ERA, led by 20-11 ace Rachele Fico's 0.92 ERA and .177 opponent's batting average.
"I would say that this is probably the biggest win in Cal history for softball that everyone got to witness today with this team coming out here and beating a very, very strong University of Washington team," said Ninemire, referring to the fact that the Bears were able not only to host their first ever Super Regional, but to win it in two games. "It was a total team effort by defense, by offense, different people coming through throughout the whole journey, and I'm just so proud of their effort and their willingness to stick together as a team and fight through every adversity that we went through the last couple weeks.
"We've never played in such a large arena as the kind of fan support that we received over the course of the last couple weeks. For this team to be able to play in front of their home fans and feel that excitement and play at home and learn how to play at home, because, you have to remember, for the last 20-some years, we've been playing on the road."
In Ninemire's 25 seasons at the helm, Cal has hosted just three Regionals, with the last one being in 1993. In total, under Ninemire, Cal had played just 10 games at Levine-Fricke Field before this season.
"My season has always been geared up, at the beginning of the year, we are always on the road for the first seven weeks to get ready for this moment," Ninemire said. "This was a great willingness by this team to be able to bounce back from not being on the road to being home, learning how to play together at home and just all the distractions that you can have at home, as well, so I just really want to say that they did a great job, and I'm really proud of them."
Ninemire's teams have now reached Oklahoma City for the 11th time, and when the Bears hit the field at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, they're 17-18. Lest one think that the senior-heavy Bears will fade after this year, the underclassmen - like Cordes - have played as big a part in this year's success as the outgoing class.
Danielle Henderson hit .286 with 15 dingers, 45 RBI and a .610 slugging percentage. Kostreba hit .306 with 13 bombs, 42 RBI, a .646 slugging percentage and 10 doubles. Cordes drove in 32 runs, posted a .405 slugging percentage and drew 30 walks -- third-most on the team behind Arioto and Williams.
"Cheyenne and Danielle in the infield, they've made tremendous adjustments there in helping us defensively," Ninemire said. "They only have a handful of errors between the two of them, and that's really helped our defense be the second-best defense in the entire country this year. Breana out in right field, she's done an excellent job learning a new position and has brought a strong bat to the plate for us at times. She led off that inning with a single that was the other run that Cheyenne hit in today. Those three freshmen have really done a great job this year, for us, and made a great impact."