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June 1, 2012

Henderson is the engine that drives the Bears

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OKLAHOMA CITY -- The top-ranked Cal softball team had just been dealt an unthinkable punch to the esophagus, a 3-2 defeat to Arkansas in the second game of the regional the Golden Bears were hosting for the first time in forever, and the postgame locker room resembled a chamber short on oxygen.

Jace Williams, the team's spirited second baseman and emotional leader, was in a semi-catatonic funk, undone by a frustrating slump, a pair of futile at-bats with runners in scoring position and the prospect of her career coming to a sudden and shocking end. Cal's other seniors, including home-run queen and national player of the year finalist Val Arioto, were contemplative and quiet. Coach Diane Ninemire, owner of more than 1,100 career victories, was visibly stressed. The Golden Bears' underclassmen looked around anxiously, searching for unspoken cues.

And Jolene Henderson, Cal's junior pitching sensation and central nervous system, was the same way she always is -- cool, competitive and committed to carrying the Bears through.

When the top-seeded Bears (57-5) face fourth-seeded Oklahoma on Friday in a huge Women's College World Series showdown at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, Henderson will be standing tall in the circle for a team that has most certainly regained its swagger. And if Cal captures its second NCAA title, and first in a decade, let the record show that the 5-foot-8 studette maintained her posture even during periods of knee-buckling tension in the early stages of their postseason journey.

Two weekends ago in Berkeley, as the walls closed in on a team that believed in its No. 1 ranking more fervently than the 50 voters in two polls who unanimously put them there heading into the NCAA Tournament, the first-team All-American and Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year simply refused to let the story end unhappily.

With all hell breaking loose around the Bears, in the circle all was calm.

"Jolene is always calm and confident, and after the Arkansas game, she never flinched," Williams recalls. "She knew there was no way we weren't getting out of that regional. She has this incredible way of keeping everybody grounded. She'll just wipe the nerves right out of me."

When the Bears returned to Levine-Fricke Field a few hours after that defeat to Arkansas for an elimination game against Boston University, Henderson was more than merely the best pitcher in the country. She was a human act of defiance, a 70-mile-per-hour statement to the spectators, her opponents and -- most important -- her teammates that losing was not an option.

From her intimidating glare to her radiant smile, Henderson put the Bears on her back and took them on an emotional, 24-hour journey that energized everyone in blue and gold.

Though the Bears have the nation's best "No. 2" pitcher in Arioto -- the phenomenal first baseman, jaw-dropping hitter and Team USA standout would be a great No. 1 for most teams -- the Arkansas defeat changed everything. After Arioto gave up three consecutive hits (and two runs) to the Razorbacks in the top of the first inning, Ninemire called on Henderson, who'd shut out Iona in Cal's postseason opener the previous night. The first Razorbacks batter Henderson faced, Jennifer Rambo, homered over the right field wall.

From that point on, Henderson slammed the door. The Bears, however, couldn't pull off the comeback, losing 3-2.

That meant Cal would have to win three games in 24 hours, beginning that night against Boston University, to avoid the most horrifying NCAA Tournament exit in the program's storied history.

And in a decision that Ninemire made without hesitation, Arioto supported and Henderson embraced, the Bears were no longer a two-armed operation. It was Jo or Die time, as it had been for all of Henderson's sophomore season, when she pitched through a stress fracture in her hip to carry the offense-challenged Bears to the WCWS and a fifth-place finish.

The results: An 8-0 victory over Boston U on Saturday night and 10-2 and 7-0 triumphs over the Razorbacks on Sunday, the latter ending with one of the most wicked three-pitch strikeouts you've ever seen. Henderson was touched for a two-run homer with a 3-0 lead in Sunday's first game against Arkansas, and that was pretty much it.

The next weekend she threw a pair of shutouts in a two-game Super Regional sweep of 16th-seeded Washington, and on Thursday she battled through a toaster-sized strike zone and an uncharacteristically ineffective changeup to pitch Cal to a 5-3 victory over LSU in their WCWS opener, improving to 37-2 on the season.

Friday evening she faces off against Oklahoma junior Keilani Ricketts, a standout hitter who stunningly edged out Arioto for national player of the year honors earlier this week. The game will feature the two best pitchers (and, including Arioto, three best players) in college softball, and I wouldn't want anyone but Henderson pitching for the team I love -- and I'll hold to that conviction regardless of the outcome.

Henderson's brilliance can't be distilled into a few sentences, but I'll try to give you the Cliff's Notes version. First, the stats: Her ERA is 1.10. She has 17 shutouts, tied for the national lead. She has four saves to go with the 37 victories (in striking range of her school-record 40 wins last season, when she was also a first-team All-American). She has 309 strikeouts -- and 70 walks -- in 262.1 innings. Opponents are hitting .189 against her. Her second-consecutive selection as the pitcher of the year in the country's toughest conference was a no-brainer.

Undeniably, Henderson is talented. She throws very hard, though there are pitchers (like Alabama's Jackie Traina) who throw harder. She has incredible accuracy, giving her an ability to work the corners of the strike zone like few others. Like Kristina Thorson, who earned Cal's first Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year award in 2005, she is brilliant when it comes to keeping hitters off balance. Henderson's pitches consistently move and change speeds -- her changeup is phenomenal (though, amazingly, it's only the second-best changeup on the team, as Arioto's is filthier than that Internet photo of an eaten human face).

Best of all, the kid battles through adversity like no other. If a great NFL cornerback must possess the 'I cannot be beaten' mentality on every play, even after getting burned for a touchdown, Henderson is the pitching equivalent. Every pitch is a separate battle, and she believes wholeheartedly she will not lose. Rope one of her pitches into the gap, and she behaves as though it never happened. Bad calls, base runners, elimination games, pitches not moving as well as usual, trouble location the zone, incredible shrinking zones ... whatever. Henderson is impervious, and her glare suggests that she'll kick your ass if you believe otherwise.

And yet, for all her intensity, Henderson radiates a sunny, upbeat energy that her teammates find infectious.

"Jolene carries herself unlike anyone else I have ever played with," Williams says. "Whenever I get stressed out about a situation on the field I just look to the circle and Jolene immediately relieves my nerves. She was getting squeezed in Game 2 against Washington but it did not alter her mindset. She has confidence in her team and knows she doesn't have to strike out every batter to win a ballgame.

"I'm glad she is on my team!"

Though willing and able to put the team on her back, she really does make it about the team, and it is not insincere. Look at any Henderson quote, no matter how tremendous her individual accomplishment, and she will reference her teammates. Her confidence extends to their abilities -- she has complete and total faith that they will have her back, and they vibe off that, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Then there is the whole sister thing. Henderson is exceptionally close with the Reid twins, Jamia and Elia, who are part of Cal's tremendous senior class. Her own sister, Danielle, is finishing up a stellar freshman year as the Bears' third baseman; Jolene talked about how special that is in a recent espn.com column.

In her mind, she and all her teammates are sisters in arms, and together, they can conquer any challenge.

In the circle, there will be calm -- and competitive fire that was obvious from the start.

No, I'm not talking about the start of Henderson's Cal career, or from the first time she played competitive softball. I'm talking about the start.

"Ask her grandfather," Joe Henderson, Jolene's father, said after Thursday's victory over LSU. "There are stories about how when she was five, she wouldn't come in the house, and people would say, 'You come through this door right now, or I'm closing it and locking you out...' and she just stood outside and waited. Maybe it's a middle-child thing… I don't know. But she's always had that strong will."

Henderson's mother, Mickey, laughed when I told her about her husband's assessment. "Oh, it goes back longer than that," she said. "It goes back to when she was four months old. We went on vacation. We left her with my parents. We left some breast milk, and it ran out. They tried to give her (formula), but she wanted breast milk. So she stopped eating -- for three days. She just refused. She knew what she wanted.

"They took her to the doctor. He said, 'If she's hungry enough, she'll eat.' When we got home, she ate. That's when the legend of Jolene was born."

It's a great story, and I believe it wholeheartedly. Belief is something that the kid in the circle inspires in everyone who enters her orbit.

After the Boston U victory, with two more games still to be won to ensure that the Bears would avoid postseason extinction, I sent Henderson a congratulatory text.

Her four-word reply told me everything I needed to know:

I live for it.

A text like that will wipe the nerves right out of you, regardless of the score outside.


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