Make no mistake about it: the Cal softball season starts now.
Sure, the Bears’ five regular season tournaments and various nonconference affairs have been a bit of a challenge. The team has faced four top- 25 teams and once played seven games in five days.
But the Pac-12 is a whole other animal.
Cal plays one series against each of the Pac-12 schools. Of those eight teams, six are ranked in the top-25, three are ranked in the top-10 and one sits just outside the top-25 rankings with only 14 votes separating it from attaining that status.
Needless to say, the level of competition is about to enter a whole new realm.
“On a consistent basis, you’re facing a top-25 most likely,” said senior infielder Jace Williams. “In that sense, you can’t have any letdowns or you’re going to lose. It’s rough playing that many games in a row against such quality competition.”
This weekend’s matchup carries added importance; in addition to Friday, Saturday and Sunday’s games being the first of the Pac-12 tilts, the opponent will be Stanford, at home at Boyd and Jill Smith Family Stadium.
Despite the historical nature of the Cal-Stanford rivalry, the Bears don’t see any difference in their approach to the game.
“I mean, we just need to stay calm and collective and think of it as any other top-10 team we need to play,” Williams said. “But it is always nice to beat Stanford.”
The Cardinal may pose Cal’s greatest challenge to date. Stanford, who ranks No. 9 in the national polls, carries a diverse arsenal of weapons.
The Cardinal’s undisputed star is infielder Ashley Hansen. The 2011 USA Collegiate Softball Player of the Year last year, college softball’s most prestigious award, Hansen is hitting .386 with 24 RBIs. Her .471 OBP and .600 slugging percentage both rank third among all Cardinal hitters.
Stanford also possesses an outstanding leadoff hitter in freshman second baseman Hanna Winter. Although Winter does not produce much in the way of extra base hits, her .471 average ranks her among the highest in college softball.
On the pitching side, Teagan Gerhart carries a 20-1 record with a 1.35 ERA. However, her 6.4 strikeouts per seven innings is pedestrian, especially at the Pac-12 level. The potent Cal offense should look to capitalize on Gerhart’s lack of a devastating out pitch.
Although the Cardinal carry a multitude of weapons, the pitching duo of Jolene Henderson and Valerie Arioto should shut down the Stanford offense, who have demonstrated difficulties with extreme strikeout pitchers. Regardless, the Bears need to maintain optimum focus, because one slip in concentration could easily lead to a three-run home run and an early insurmountable deficit.
“Every Pac-12 game is so hard,” Williams said. “You have to come up with your set stuff or you’ll lose every game.”