Bears hope pair of aces is winning hand in Las Vegas

The Cal softball team is on an undeniable hot streak, and the squad is taking its good fortune to Vegas this weekend.

The Bears decisively won all four games of last weekend’s tournament, accentuated by Valerie Arioto’s dominant comeback after a year hiatus due to injury. Arioto’s three-home run, nine-RBI performance nabbed her both USA Softball national Player of the Week and Pac-12 Player of the Week honors. She was also named a candidate for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS award, which recognizes both athletic and character excellence. To sweeten the pot even more, the Bears rose from their No. 4 rank to No. 1.

Now that is an impressive week.

“Getting No. 1 was cool, because it is something we haven’t been able to accomplish since 2005,” senior third baseman Jace Williams said. “But we know that what really matters is where we finish, so if you ask me again and we are there in three and a half months, I’ll be absolutely thrilled.”

Cal hopes to double down and get four more victories this weekend as it heads to the Louisville Slugger Desert Classic, hosted by UNLV. Of the 18 teams playing in the tournament, the Bears will face off against DePaul, San Jose State, UC Riverside and No. 24 LSU. Games will be held in UNLV’s Eller Media Stadium and Stephanie Lynn Craig Park.

While four wins and a No. 1 ranking may seem like a winning hand, the competition will be upping the ante, making this tournament anything but a safe bet.

“We have huge targets on our backs now,” Williams said. “Everyone wants to beat us, so we can’t take anything for granted. We will get everyone’s best effort to knock us off.”

The Tigers in particular will be out for blood, as the Pac-12 and SEC have a fierce softball rivalry. LSU is the highest-ranked team the Bears will face this weekend, and conference pride is expected to raise the stakes in that game. The Bears have already taken down one SEC team, No. 9 Tennessee, in their first game this season.

“We like to bring it to the SEC,” Williams said. “I’m going to be extra fired up.”

Cal will look to aces Arioto and Jolene Henderson for power and presence, but the Bears also have deep bench. Freshman Danielle Henderson made an impressive debut last weekend, and Cal sees these early-season tournaments as significant opportunities for the newest players to integrate and adapt to the team’s style of play.

Despite the No. 1 rank, the squad don’t see itself at the top of its game quite yet.

“My goal for this team is to really reach our potential, to be undefeated in preseason heading into Pac-12,” Williams said. “It will be hard to do but I think this team can do it. We need to win four games this weekend.”

What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but the Bears are betting on skill — not luck — to take them to the top.