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May 19, 2012

Cal invokes mercy rule in regional opener



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BERKELEY -- Intimidated. Too fast. Those were the words that Iona softball players and head coach Roni Rivera used to describe consensus No. 1 California, moments after the Bears mercy-ed the Gaels, 8-0, in the second game of the Berkeley Regional on Friday night.

"I think we hung in there, but their speed finally caught up to us in the fifth inning," Rivera said. "When they have that much speed, there's not that much room for error.

"If they can get their first few kids on, they're going to be great. They have a lot, a lot of speed ... They have such speed that, that can really put the pressure on teams ... Nobody in the MAAC runs as fast as Cal, and when speed gets on there, the pressure is amped."

Cal (51-4) moved within five wins of the program's single-season wins record with a resounding thumping of visiting Iona, and the Bears needed just six hits to do it, behind a near-perfect outing from junior hurler Jolene Henderson, who allowed just two hits and struck out seven in 5.0 innings of work. Henderson had gotten touched up for five runs -- four earned -- in her final regular season start against No. 2 Arizona State, but came out firing in the postseason opener.

"It was fun to come out here for the opening," Henderson said. "We were so excited all week to play under the lights on our field, so we've been really pumped, and I think Arizona State really helped us. They're a really good team, and we were really prepared for the postseason."

After taking batting practice earlier this week off of former All-American and Cal legend Kristina Thorson, the Bears played for the first time under the lights at home, and showed no ill effects from the unfamiliar start time.

"It was so exciting tonight to be out here, to be able to finally play in front of our fans and just the excitement and everything was just fantastic," said head coach Diane Ninemire. "I know that the players really enjoyed tonight."

After Gaels starter Sarah Jackson allowed two one-out walks in the bottom of the first, senior second baseman Jace Williams fired a fielder's choice grounder to second, where Chelsea Sheehan tagged out Valerie Arioto, putting runners at first and third for Breana Kostreba.

"I think it was a matter of me adjusting to the umpire's strike zone," Jackson said. "I haven't pitched to an umpire with that small of a zone lately, so it was a matter of finding the zone and sticking with it."

Jackson's 1-1 change up squeaked by catcher Katie Jansson, bringing Britt Vonk around to score, and Kostreba promptly sent the next pitch soaring over the right field wall for a two-run homer, putting the Bears up 3-0.

"I got an outside curve," Kostreba said. "She had thrown me that for my first strike, so I got up on the plate and let it in and took it the opposite way."

After walking Cheyenne Cordes, Jackson dialed back in, fanning powerful freshman third baseman Danielle Henderson to stop the bleeding.

"I thought, tonight, we really started the game off well," Ninemire said. "When Bri hit the home run, we got the three runs right away, and it's really tough to have a team like ours lose when we get ahead by that many runs in the first inning. It was a great moment for us to get that edge right away so that we could take control of the game."

Enter: Jolene the Machine. The Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year allowed an infield single in the top of the second, but retired the next eight straight before allowing a line-drive single through the left side to Sacramento native Allyssa Jones with one out in the top of the fifth. Jones tallied the Gaels' only two hits of the contest.

"It was really nice, because I do have my family here," Jones said. "It was nice to get a couple hits off of someone who I was -- to be honest -- intimidated with. I never thought that she would throw a no-hitter, just because I know the type of team that we are. I don't think it was even an option for us, but what happened, happened."

Henderson then retired the Sheehan and pinch hitter Beth Kann, setting the stage for a fifth-inning offensive explosion.

"I thought Jolene threw a great game," Ninemire said. "She had seven strikeouts and we had multiple hits from Britt Vonk, from Breana and also from Frani. It was a great night, tonight, and a good start to the regional."

Center fielder Frani Echavarria threaded a hard hopper through the left side to lead off the top of the fifth with a single. Speedy Jamia Reid slapped a hard grounder to second on a 1-2 offering from Jackson, pressuring Sheehan into a wild throw to first. Echavarria came around to score and by the time James got the ball back in, Reid was standing at third, having effectively turned a groundout into a run-scoring triple.

Vonk slapped a slow roller to short to bring Reid home and put the Bears up 5-0. After a walk to Arioto - the Pac-12 Player of the Year - Jackson was lifted for Alyssa Maiese, who walked Williams to load the bases for Kostreba.

After an eight-pitch battle, Kostreba sent a payoff pitch in on the hands flaring into center for an RBI single. With one out, Danielle Henderson took a dose on the first pitch from Maiese to force in a run. After catcher Victoria Jones fanned on three pitches, Echavarria got down 0-2 before shooting a grounder up the middle and off the glove of shortstop Briana Schauer. While Schauer was able to keep the ball on the infield, she had no chance to get Williams at home, as the senior scored Cal's eighth and final run of the game.

All six Bears hits came from three players -- Vonk, Kostreba and Echavarria -- who each had two base knocks in front of a packed house at Levine-Fricke Field.


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