In the Cal softball team’s second practice, All-American pitcher and first baseman Valerie Arioto broke her leg — leaving a void in the circle, in the infield and at the plate.
Coach Diane Ninemire turned to sophomore Jolene Henderson, who had split time with Arioto both on the rubber and on first last season.
It’s safe to say Henderson was ready for the challenge.
The Elk Grove, Calif. native stepped as the ace and turned in a standout season, carrying the team to its first Women’s College World Series appearance in six years.
With 18 shutouts on the year and an ERA under 1.00, the righty racked up a 40-10 record and emerged as one of the country’s most dominant pitchers. The workhorse put in over 333 innings, surpassing some of the other nationally-recognized pitchers by over a 100 innings.
“I think as a player, it just shows that I have a strong team behind me,” Henderson said. “If I didn’t have a strong team behind me, then that wouldn’t be the case.”
And strength was what this year’s squad needed in response to Arioto’s absence. With no seniors, the young group was forced to grow up quickly and adjust to a shift in strategy this spring.
After losing Arioto’s bat, the team saw its home run total take a hit — dropping from 51 in 2010 to 34 this year. Instead, the Bears tapped into the speed and consistency that players like left fielder Jamia Reid and shortstop Britt Vonk had to offer.
Reid showed hot baserunning, tallying 31 stolen bases in 37 attempts, and Vonk paced the team with an impressive .415 average.
“We lacked power this year,” third baseman Jace Williams said. “We found ways to win without a million home runs (by making) things happen for ourselves and (not relying) on the long ball. That was a strategy for us: get our speed on and hit them in … It wasn’t the flashy long ball that carried us this season, it was pitching and making things happen on the bases.”
Cal found its winning ways in mid-April, after starting just 2-4 in conference play. From then on, the Bears reeled off 14 wins in 16 games, never dropping a series and finishing second in the Pac-10.
The momentum spilled over into the postseason, where the No. 7-seed Bears swept their opponents in the Louisville Regional.
Cal then showed major resilience against Kentucky in the Super Regionals. After getting battered during an 8-0 game two mercy loss, Henderson was lights-out in game three — blanking the Wildcats in a 9-0 victory to secure a ticket to Oklahoma City.
The Bears fell short of their ultimate goal of reaching the national championship title. Florida ended Cal’s postseason run for the third time in four years — leaving Henderson unsatisfied.
“Every year I expect to be in the World Series,” Henderson said. “I expected it last year and it didn’t happen. I expected it this year and it didn’t happen. Next year, I expect to be in the final series. I know the potential of my team and what they can do by getting stronger this year.”
The Bears welcome a top-10 recruiting class and return a full roster next season. Namely, a healthy Arioto will pair with Henderson to give Cal a formidable arsenal in the circle — and grander plans — for 2012.
“Next year our goal is to win the national championship,” Williams said. “Anything less than that and our team will be disappointed.”
Kelly Suckow covers softball.