After her ace suffered her first five-inning mercy rule loss this season on Sunday, Cal softball coach Diane Ninemire had Jolene Henderson go into the locker room.
Henderson even redid her hair.
For the nation’s ERA leader coming into the weekend, an 8-0 run rule loss to Kentucky in game two of the Lexington Super Regional meant something had to change — the Bears’ ticket to the Women’s College World Series depended on it.
“I thought, ‘This would never happen again,’” said Henderson, who only lasted two innings of the blowout. “I realized I could do so much better and I was so upset, but I couldn’t let it keep me down because I knew I was going to get it the next game.”
The 5’8” right-hander came out truer to form, armed with a change-up the Wildcats struggled to get a piece of and bolstered by an offense that had only manufactured one run in the first two games of the series. The result was a 9-0 win that sent Cal to Oklahoma City for its first WCWS appearance since 2005. It also broke a four-year struggle against SEC teams, which had knocked the Bears out of the postseason every season since 2007.
“Nothing was going our way (in the first Sunday game) and we needed a little kick to remind us that these teams are all the best in the country and if we wanted to be one of them, then we needed to win and pull it together,” catcher Lindsey Ziegenhirt said. “In that second game, with our backs against the wall and all that pressure on to get something started (we) broke the momentum first.”
No. 7-seeded Cal (44-11) broke it early, too, exploding for a 5-0 first inning lead and never looking back. Shortstop Britt Vonk came home first when Ashley Decker walked with bases loaded. Second baseman Victoria Jones then plated Jace Williams with a single, followed by first baseman Jordan Wallace’s double to bring home a pair of runs.
The four runs scored off of the four hits forced Kentucky to pull starter Chanda Bell the before the inning even ended. A wild pitch with right fielder Elia Reid up to bat scored Jones for the last run of the inning and anchored the Bears with a lead they would not relinquish for the rest of the game.
“They really responded that first inning and that really set the tone,” Ninemire said. “Then we keep adding on it a little bit each inning. Even when we didn’t score, we had runners in scoring position and kept doing positive things that I think kept the momentum in our dugout.”
The Wildcats (40-16) threatened in the bottom of the sixth with strong hits to load the bases, but Henderson worked her way out of the jam beautifully, fighting off a 3-0 count to force a pop-out that closed out the frame.
Cal tacked on runs to widen the lead even further, headlined by Ziegenhirt’s two-run home run over the center field fence in the seventh inning to make the score 8-0.
“I had been working really hard trying to get good contact on the ball,” said Ziegenhirt, who went 2-for-9 on the weekend. “I think (the home run) was the accumulation of all my efforts this weekend — that one big hit at a good time.”
For the Bears, who open WCWS play against Alabama (51-9) on Thursday, the win provided no shortage of confidence.
“After dealing with that first game, it builds character … never say never,” Henderson said. “We are never going to sit down and take it. We are always going to be ready for more.”
Kelly Suckow covers softball.