Cal locked and loaded for national championship run

The Cal softball team returns nine of last year's starters — including pitcher Jolene Henderson and outfielder Jamia Reid — to its lineup.
Levy Yun/File
The Cal softball team returns nine of last year's starters — including pitcher Jolene Henderson and outfielder Jamia Reid — to its lineup.

Make no mistake about it: this season, the Cal softball team is out for blood.

After a crushing defeat to Georgia in last year’s Super Regional, the Bears look to rebound this year with only one goal in mind: the national championship. Cal returns all nine starters from last year’s College World Series-qualifying team, making this Bears squad as loaded as any as the 2012 season kicks off.

In addition to the nine returning starters, two key pieces will be added that already have made an impact on the young season.

Valerie Arioto is the most compelling of the couplet. Entering the 2011 season, Arioto was regarded almost unanimously as the Bears’ best player. Two games into the season, however, Arioto suffered a season-ending injury, forcing her to redshirt and miss the entire 2011 campaign.

With Arioto, a first baseman and pitcher, back at full strength for the 2012 season, there will undoubtedly be a surge in offensive production from the Cal lineup. Any doubts about her injury affecting this year’s performance were silenced by Arioto’s presence at the Kajikawa Classic this past weekend. Arioto hit .444 with three home runs and nine RBI, indicating her potential to take over a game solely with her offensive production.

A more apt question is whether Arioto’s presence will launch the Bears’ offensive to national title contention. Cal’s No. 4 ranking seems to indicate that authorities on the subject concur with this hypothesis.

Another intriguing X-factor for the Bears is freshman Cheyenne Cordes. Fresh off winning the gold for the US Junior National Team this winter break, Cordes looks to contribute right away in a utility role. Her resumé — California Gatorade Player of the Year, ESPN RISE First Team All-American, First Team All-State — would likely land her a starting role on any other Pac-12 squad.

However, the competitive nature of Cal’s lineup will likely relegate her to a less prominent role than she may initially deserve. With improvement over the course of the season, Cordes could bloom into a key cog for the Bears. Cordes already has proven her worth early in the season, starting at shortstop for all four games this past weekend and collecting six hits.

Pitcher Jolene Henderson, who compiled a 40-10 record with a 0.99 ERA last season, returns for her junior season. Jamia Reid, a senior outfielder who hit .394 with and a .497 slugging percentage last year, is one of three Bears on the NCAA’s preseason watch list for the 2012 USA Collegiate Softball Player of the Year award, joining Arioto and Henderson. Shortstop Britt Vonk looks to replicate the success of her freshman season, when she led all Cal players with a .416 average and a .502 on-base percentage.

Put these pieces together and add a veteran, battle-tested starting lineup, and the Bears are starting to look the part of a dominant force for the 2012 softball season.

But their road to the promised land will assuredly be filled with bumps and bruises. Arizona State, a division opponent, took all 30 first-place votes in the preseason NCAA rankings. Stanford, ranked ninth, returns the reigning Collegiate Player of the Year Ashley Hansen. Washington lurks just behind Stanford, ranking 12th after a strong 2011 campaign.

In this competitive environment, the path to attaining a College World Series bid will be a fierce competition. Unfortunately for other Pac-12 teams, Cal comes back this season with both a vengeance and a reloaded starting lineup. The lethal combination of motivation and talent may just be enough to allow this feisty Bears team to claw their way to the top of the proverbial tree.