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May 21, 2012

Echavarria, Henderson lead Bears to regional title



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BERKELEY -- After 424 pitches, 29.2 innings, 20 hits, six walks, three runs and 35 strikeouts in three days, Jolene Henderson was finally done. For now.

The No. 1 California softball team's ace hurler plopped down in her seat in front of the media following a 7-0 shutout win of Arkansas -- the second of her two wins on the day, including a 10-2 Game Six victory -- she smiled and bobbed her head.

"This is what we live for," Henderson smiled. "I knew I had to throw well because this team was a very, very good hitting team. I was really, really impressed. I knew it wasn't going to be a walk in the park, and it was definitely not. I haven't thrown two games, back-to-back, for a while, so to be on and to have my team, I looked back every time and they were always making plays. They made phenomenal plays today. I might not have been on all the way, but they were there behind me, and they were on."

Henderson -- for all her Drysdale With a Ponytail mean streak -- was all bubbly smiles as both she and the offensive star of the evening -- Frani Echavarria -- basked in the glow of the program's first ever regional championship won on its home field. The Bears - with two wins on Sunday over the Razorbacks - advance to a Super Regional date with conference foe Washington next weekend.

"Today was just a great day for Cal softball," said head coach Diane Ninemire. "This team came out as a team and everybody contributed to the success of us winning both games today. We knew our backs were against the wall. We knew we were going to play a great team in Arkansas, and we knew we had to have great pitching. Jolene threw great both games, and the hitting was outstading, and it was led by Frani in the four-spot."

After four-hitter Jace Williams went 0-for-9 in the Bears' first four games, she was moved down in the order and Echavarria was moved from eighth to cleanup. The senior center fielder did not disappoint, going 4-for-4 with two runs and six RBI in Game Six to fuel the 10-2 win, leading into the 7-0 regional-clinching win under the lights.

"This team, we fight all the way till the end," Echavarria said. "All day, we were saying -- because Arkansas is a great program, and they gave us a great three games -- we said that they might have won the battle, but they're not going to win the war. I guess we were successful today."

After falling in Game Three of the regional to the Razorbacks, 3-2 on Saturday, the Bears (54-5) battled back to defeat Boston by the eight-run mercy rule in Game Five later that evening to force two games on Sunday. With athletic director Sandy Barbour, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and Cal men's basketball star Jorge Gutierrez looking on, Cal took the field against Arkansas just moments before a partial solar eclipse on Sunday, and appropriately enough launched their own space program with the longball-fueled 10-2 win.

With two outs and one run already across in the top of the second, Razorbacks starter Hope McLemore walked Bears slugger Valerie Arioto intentionally -- her eighth of 13 free pass of the regional -- to load the bases for Echavarria. The senior center fielder rocketed a two-run double to stake Cal to an early 3-0 lead over an Arkansas squad, which had jumped on the Bears 3-0 in the first inning just over 24 hours before.

"It's part of the game," Echavarria said of the walks to Arioto. "Pitching against Val is really hard, and I get that. I take it personally, as well."

SEC Freshman of the Year Devon Wallace cranked out her 15th home run of the year in the bottom of the third - a two-run shot to bring the Razorbacks within one. After that, though, the sleeping giant that is the Cal offense erupted. Arioto took a walk to lead off the fourth, and moved to third on an Echavarria double, tucked just inside the right field line. With one out, second baseman Williams -- in the midst of an 0-for-10 slide -- rattled a hard grounder to first for the first of several productive outs on the final day of the regional, bringing Arioto home to make the score 4-2. Freshman third baseman Danielle Henderson then sent the second pitch she saw arching into the afternoon sky and halfway up the bleachers in right center field for a titanic opposite-field blast, putting Cal up by four.

With the bases loaded in the top of the fifth, Arioto sent a 2-2 offering from reliever Alyssa Maiese hurtling towards the hills down the left field line, but saw the drive hook foul at the last second. Arioto popped out to catcher Katie Jansson on the next pitch, setting the stage for Echavarria.

"Bases are loaded, we need some more runs and I just did what I could to help out the team in any way," Echavarria said.

The Bears center fielder worked the count full and then yanked the payoff pitch just inside the right field foul pole for the first grand slam of her life, giving her six RBI in the game.

"I wasn't even expecting it to go out, and when it did, it was a great feeling," Echavarria said.

As Echavarria took the field in the next inning, she got a standing ovation from the right center field bleachers.

"I've never had that before," Echavarria laughed. "It was a great feeling, and I'm just happy that I could help out my team."

Echavarria was locked in throughout the weekend, going 9-for-15 with seven runs, four doubles, a home run and eight RBI, and though she went 0-for-3 in the finale, she still reached base twice and scored two runs.

"Frani had been hitting the ball earlier in this tournament so well, with a great eye," Ninemire said. "We just really needed someone who could come through and make good contact. It was just a great move to move her up, and it was something that the team needed, and we all decided that [moving her to fourth] was the best move for the team today."

Half an hour after Jolene Henderson dispatched Arkansas in Game Six, she took the hill for yet another dominant performance in the nightcap, tossing seven innings of five-hit, shutout ball.

The junior righty allowed a leadoff single to Wallace in the top of the first, before getting Navarro to line out to Arioto for an unassisted double play. After allowing a single to second baseman Sierra Bronkey, Henderson retired the next 12 straight, before a single by pinch hitter Alyssa Bass broke the spell with one out in the top of the fifth. After a walk to designated player Jessica Robison, Henderson made the first of two heads-up plays in the circle on a high chopper by right fielder Tori Mort, snaring the ball just behind the chalk and firing to first for the final out of the inning.

Henderson -- staked to a 6-0 lead thanks to an RBI groundout by Williams, a passed ball and an RBI single by right fielder Ashley Decker and a three-run home run by designated player Britt Vonk -- then went on to work out a two-on, one-out jam in the sixth with an alert play on a tough roller between the circle and home to cut down center fielder Jennifer Rambo at first and a swing-and-miss strikeout of third baseman Chloe Oprzedek.

Decker drove in the final run of the game in the bottom of the sixth, when, after a two-out scorched single by Williams to move Arioto to third, she sent a spinning grounder up the first base line. Reliever Chelsea Cohen's toss to first hit Decker in the back, sending the ball skittering away and allowing Arioto to come around to score.

Henderson then struck out the final two batters in the top of the seventh to clinch a Super Regional appearance, which the Bears will host at Levine-Fricke Field next weekend, either in a Friday-Saturday or a Saturday-Sunday series.

"I'm feeling great right now," Henderson said. "That last inning, I really had to go to the bathroom, but now I'm feeling really good."

Cal took three straight from the then-No. 3 Huskies from March 30-April 1 in Berkeley, outscoring Washington 13-8. Henderson went 2-0, allowing 17 hits and four earned runs over 14.0 innings of work, striking out 19 and walking one.

"We've played them three times this year and we played them here at home," Ninemire said. "They're another great team that we will have to prepare for, and I would imagine that we're going to have the same type of competition that we had earlier in the year with them. They were close games, and we're going to really have to come out with our best."


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