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June 5, 2011

Future is bright for Cal softball

OKLAHOMA CITY -- When California head softball coach Diane Ninemire arrived here last Tuesday in preparation for her team's first Women's College World Series appearance in six years, the winningest coach in Cal sports history checked her inbox and smiled. Recognizing the email address of Candace Harper, a former Golden Bears great whose dramatic hit off Jennie Finch propelled Cal to the 2002 national championship, Ninemire opened what she assumed would be a good-luck message lauding the program's return to the sport's biggest stage.

Instead, Ninemire found the words she would need to touch the hearts of her tight and tentative players.

After looking nervous and listless in Thursday's WCWS opener, a 1-0 defeat to second-seeded Alabama, the seventh-seeded Bears waited two days to return to ASA Hall of Fame Stadium for an elimination game against Oklahoma State. As they gathered in their locker room Saturday morning, Ninemire told her players that Harper -- a relentlessly upbeat leader, and one of her very favorites from a Hall of Fame coaching career -- had written a short note for the occasion.

Then Ninemire pulled out her smart phone and started to read:

"Getting to the College World Series is so many things. It is amazing, a privilege, fantastic, overwhelming, stressful, fun, and so, so, so much more. You feel so many things. My advice to you is to enjoy every feeling you have and to live in the moment. Play with your heart and stay focused."

The players saw that Ninemire, an eternal optimist whose sunny personality fails to conceal a furious competitive fire, had tears in her eyes. By the time the coach finished reading Harper's email, she'd had to pause several times to keep from flat-out sobbing.

"By then," junior third baseman Jace Williams would say later, "we were all crying."

Harper's message wasn't particularly flashy: "Just know you have the support of many people and recognize that you have brought us back together once again in Oklahoma City. We do not have to be physically present in Oklahoma to be with you. We are there every step of the way. Once you put on that Cal uniform, you never really take it off. This week you will represent yourself and you represent us. Play hard, be humble, stay positive and never give up. Make us proud by leaving everything out there on the field."

It turned out Harper's heartfelt note hit the spot, a figurative blast from the past. On a spirited Saturday that set the stage for a run with the potential to approach the string of seven consecutive WCWS appearances that began in Harper's freshman season, the revived Bears came from behind to eliminate Oklahoma State, 6-2, in the early game, then returned in the evening with a renewed swagger. After jumping out to an early lead on potent, fourth-seeded Florida, Cal suffered a 5-2 defeat that, but for a few extra inches on a potential inning-ending foul flyout that All-American left fielder Jamia Reid just missed catching, might have instead had the Bears pull off the tournament's most shocking upset.

As they shook hands with the Gators and exited the tournament, the coach and her players knew they had delivered a message to the college softball world as powerful as Harper's. With everyone coming back, a loaded recruiting class coming in and one of the best players in Cal history, first baseman-pitcher Valerie Arioto, returning from a broken leg to complete her brilliant career and take some pressure off of All-American circle queen Jolene Henderson, the Bears are looking at a possible preseason No. 1 ranking in 2012 for the first time since the 2005 season.

Their performances on Saturday convinced everyone associated with the program -- and one NFL columnist who doubles as a dorky Cal softball fanatic -- that the Bears will embrace those expectations and go after their dreams with abandon. As Henderson put it shortly after returning to the team's downtown hotel Saturday night, "Next year starts right now, and we're going after everyone and everything. There's not a player on this team who's not ready to roll."

Does this sound like a group of players destined to make their predecessors proud? The answer is as obvious as Cal's speed at the top of the order, where Reid and No. 2 hitter Britt Vonk, the Dutch shortstop coming off a fantastic freshman season, each parlayed her sprinting skills to over-.400 batting averages.

It's going to be so fun to watch, too. And I plan to cherish every pitch of it.

When people ask me about me about the origin of my psychotic devotion to Cal softball, there's a long answer that dates back to my college days in the mid-'80s as The Daily Californian's sports editor -- and columnist who never missed an opportunity to make fun of the coverage-starved team that played atop Strawberry Canyon.

There's also a short answer as to why I love Cal softball, and I will give you that one: Whereas I root for all of Cal's teams because of my intense regard for my alma mater, I believe the young women who wear the softball uniform tend to reflect qualities unique to the UC Berkeley experience and project the best of them in the heat of competition.

Year in and year out, these kids are diverse and curious, rowdy and resilient, creative and defiant. They are not averse to getting in one another's faces, but they have each other's backs against the rest of the world. Some have sorority pins and ribbons in their hair, and others have Goth makeup and mouth jewelry, but they all have a knack for playing like their tight pants are on fire when it matters most.

None of them has been handed a thing -- indeed, "Never Easy" is the Cal softball mantra -- but all that seems to do is increase the collective resolve to seize their opportunities by the throat and revel in the pursuit of greatness.

OK, there's an even shorter answer, too: I love Cal softball because I love Diane Ninemire.

An anonymous assistant back when I was in college, Ninemire took over the program after coach Donna Terry tragically fell ill and passed away. Outsiders probably figured she was a short-timer. One thousand fifty-nine victories later, she's an institution -- and she just completed what even by her standards was a remarkable coaching job in 2011.

Stomach-punched by Arioto's season-ending broken leg on the first day of practice and painfully short on offensive punch as a result, Ninemire finessed a lineup that lived on putting the ball in play, running aggressively and pressuring opponents into mistakes. Sometimes, it worked, and the Bears won close games. Other times, it didn't -- and Henderson, the sublime sophomore from Sacramento, simply put her teammates on her sturdy shoulders and willed them to victory.

Picked to finish fourth in the Pac-10, the Bears tied for fifth in the country. Henderson, the Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year and a first-team All-American, won a school-record 40 games and had a regular-season ERA under 0.80. Reid, Vonk and No. 3-hitter Williams were consistently tough outs, but the rest of Cal's lineup was a montage of frequent frustration augmented by occasional big hits.

Statistically, Ninemire's team had no business competing with the nation's elite. Somehow, she got the Bears to believe -- and to overachieve on a consistent basis.

"Coaching isn't science," she told me during our long conversation in the hotel lobby Friday afternoon. "It's an art form. These kids all have special abilities inside of them. My job is to bring them out. You have to find a way to reach them."

Ninemire's way, inevitably, is the hard way. That's not her fault; that's the way it is at Cal, and the way it always has been during her tenure. The Bears play their home games at Levine-Fricke Field, a picturesque setting above Memorial Stadium that, sadly, fails to meet the minimum standards (seats, a press box, locker rooms, etc.) for hosting in the postseason. That means Ninemire's teams, no matter how successful during the regular season and no matter their national seed, must hit the road for Regionals and Super Regionals, something with which no other major program has to contend.

Throw in the fact that Cal softball is not fully funded, meaning that Ninemire isn't afforded by the athletic department the maximum amount of scholarships allowed by the NCAA, and her remarkable run of success (the Bears have won a regional in someone else's stadium 12 of the past 13 seasons; think about that) is even more staggering. Somehow, she keeps landing blue-chip recruits -- next year's class includes Fairfield's Cheyenne Cordes, a middle infielder and outfielder who's a member of the U.S. junior national team -- while developing lightly regarded prospects into stars, Exhibit A being 2006 Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year Kristina Thorson. Having a dugout that includes the best pitching coach in America, longtime top assistant John Reeves, doesn't hurt, either.

There was a lot of talk this postseason on ESPN and on the Internet about Cal softball's facilities issues, and it will only intensity as the Bears contend for national titles in each of Henderson's remaining two seasons (and possibly even after she's gone). These are tough economic times at the University of California -- and in most places -- and the problem isn't easily solved.

While Ninemire never whines, she's obviously on the constant lookout for a donor or donors who'd like to help build a proper home for a program that stands for excellence and so many other wonderful qualities. If you or someone you know is such a person-a potential benefactor moved by things like female empowerment, acceptance and embracing of people's differences and constantly charging forward in the face of adversity-find me via Twitter or through Yahoo! Sports or via email at trippinon-e@yahoo.com, and I will get you right in touch with Ninemire.

If you were to spend a few minutes with the woman, let alone the two-plus hours I did on Friday, you would understand the passion and the unfettered optimism that guide this special program. Her team was coming off a stinker of an opener the previous day, somewhat understandable given its WCWS inexperience and the caliber of opponent -- and the fact that the Bears had literally been on the road for two-and-a-half weeks, having been sent to the Bluegrass State for both Regionals (at Louisville) and Supers (at Kentucky) before heading straight to OKC.

She wasn't condoning Thursday's effort, or making excuses for it, but she absolutely understood that whatever their ultimate finish in 2011, these Bears had to make a statement to themselves about who they are and where they're taking this program.

So many of Cal's players were looking lost at the plate, from Reid and her twin sister, Elia Reid, to catcher and cleanup hitter Lindsey Ziegenhirt, to junior center fielder Frani Echavarria, sophomore first baseman Jordan Wallace and freshman designated player Ashley Decker.

"We have to change our approach," Ninemire said. "Not just strategically, but mentally. The whole thing. It's an attitude. We have to be aggressive, not reactive, and we have to be smarter."

It sounded hard to me. To Ninemire, it sounded possible, even probable. "I have to reach them," she said. "I think I can."

It was then that Ninemire pulled out her phone and read me Harper's email -- well, about two-thirds of it, before she gave up, handed me the device and started wiping away the flowing tears. Harper's words meant so much to her because they reminded Ninemire of how much her program had touched a former player. And, of course, because Harper means so much to her.

"Candace was everything to this program," Ninemire said. "That year we finally broke through, we had that great freshman class (which included Kaleo Eldredge, Chelsea Spencer, Jessica Pamanian and Kelly Anderson, among others), and there was a lot of tension between the two generations. A lot of the older kids didn't warm to the newcomers. Candace was the one who brought it all together. She was smart enough to know that she needed them, and also such a positive, well-meaning person that she was going to embrace them anyway.

"You saw what they did."

That group brought me a lot of ecstasy, including title-game appearances in '03 and '04 and a dramatic postseason run in '05 that ended with a disappointing WCWS finish, a memory I nonetheless treasured. On Saturday, win or lose, I just wanted these Bears to make my second WCWS trip more thrilling than my first one.

I was among the 60 or so people (including athletic director Sandy Barbour, who'd flown in on a redeye from Seattle) destroying our voices and chanting at every opportunity in an effort to make it happen. I think we helped the cause, as did Harper's email and Ninemire's pregame speech and brilliant guidance in general. But to make Saturday special, the kids themselves had to be the ones to get it done.

They weren't perfect, but they were precious.

There was Henderson, on the first pitch of the game, plunking Cowgirls leadoff hitter Mariah Gearhart on the leg. Did she do it on purpose, to send a message? Well, Gearhart crowded the plate against her in a 3-2 Cal defeat at a tournament in Palm Springs early in the 2010 season, and she was leaning into the inside corner this time, too. I have a suspicion that Jolene the Machine was programmed for asserting her ownership of that plate from the get-go. That's what Thorson would have done, and 2002 WCWS hero Jocelyn Forest, too.

"Jocelyn absolutely would have," Harper said, laughing, when we talked on Sunday.

The bottom of the second began with Ziegenhirt, in a composed and patient at bat, smacking an opposite-field leadoff single; she scored from second on a base hit by freshman second baseman Victoria Jones, with whom she'll likely compete for the catcher's job next fall.

Henderson hung her wicked changeup a few times, and a run of five consecutive Oklahoma State singles (mostly softly hit balls and flares) put Cal in a 2-1 hole. Scary. The Bears loaded the bases with two outs in the bottom of the fifth, and up came Decker, the most struggling hitter in a lineup full of them.

It had to be now. The count on the freshman was 1-1 when she rounded on a pitch from Kat Espinosa and blooped a ball toward the right field line. It all happened so slowly. Would the ball be fair or foul? Would charging right fielder Sammy Diffendaffer get there in time? Three-hundred sixty-five seconds later, or so it seemed, the moment of truth arrived. Diffendaffer dove. The ball kissed the grass just inside the first-base line and skidded past her. And then, bedlam.

The Bears! The Bears! The Bears!

It was probably Cal's biggest hit since Haley Woods' surreal season-saving double in Fresno at the 2005 regionals, and its most improbable since light-hitting first baseman Roni Rodrigues' homer against Florida State at the 2004 WCWS. And, naturally, it had a measure of unfathomable drama. The Bears, who once tied an elimination game with two outs in the seventh inning after a pinch runner tripped after rounding third base and staggered home to be buried under a jubilant blue-and-gold dogpile, watched in horror as baserunner Echavarria -- who'd inexplicably frozen at first to watch Decker's fly -- was nearly passed by the freshman on the basepaths. Fortunately, Decker was paying attention and pulled up, and Echavarria turned anchor-leg-trackster and came around to score on her teammate's first career three-bagger.

Or, as it will forever be known in Cal softball lore: A triple-Decker.

It was 4-2, Bears, and the haze was officially gone. Decker came home when shortstop Chelsea Garcia bobbled Jones' grounder, and Henderson started toying with hitters the way she usually does. In the bottom of the sixth Elia Reid blasted a homer to left, and Jamia, still in the lineup despite a severe shoulder injury, followed by smacking a hard single up the middle. The crowd chanted "Double Trouble" as the twins' irrepressible mom, Elle, danced for the ESPN cameras.

By the time the Bears seized a 2-0 lead over the Gators in the top of the first, plenty of viewers were probably sick of her, and us in general.

If so, I'm afraid I have some very bad news. This group is just getting started. Next year Arioto returns to regulate, and three freshman sluggers-Cordes, Breana Kostreba and Danielle Henderson, a.k.a. "Hendu" (after former A's outfielder Dave Henderson), a.k.a. Jolene the Machine's little sister -- join the party. Big sis, limited offensively because she's playing through a horribly painful hip injury (um, yeah, she's a beast), will bring her big bat to the ballyard, too.

Ninemire won't have her field of dreams -- yet -- but she will have a phenomenal lineup with speed and power from both sides, a stable of dangerous pinch-hitters, a quartet of legitimate national player of the year candidates (Jolene Henderson, Arioto, Jamia Reid and Vonk), one of the most clutch hitters she has ever had (Williams) and a one-two pitching punch in Henderson and Arioto that should evoke memories of the Thorson-Anderson glory years.

She'll have a dugout bursting with justifiable swagger, and her relentless optimism will be deserved too. She knows she has the right kids. She has reached them. They will play hard, be humble, stay positive and never give up.

Best of all, as Harper and so many others who've balled out for Ninemire know, they will honor the uniform and never really take it off.

And that, ultimately, is the most glorious thing of all.


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