Without star pitcher, Cal softball faces crucial test

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Anthony Martinez/Staff

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The path to success isn’t going to be smoothly paved for the Cal softball team this season. In fact, the Bears are going to face their toughest obstacle yet for a Pac-12 title, all without their leader Jolene Henderson.

During last Sunday’s home game against Oregon State, Henderson, Cal’s superstar pitcher, left the game clutching her left leg while throwing a ball to first. An update confirms that Henderson suffered a knee injury and is now day-to-day, and will be unable to play this week against No. 5 Arizona State. The three-game series will start Friday afternoon at the Alberta B. Farrington stadium in Tempe, Ariz.

“I don’t think this injury is season ending,” said Henderson. “I expect to be out on the field before the post-season.”

Henderson is expected to return later in the season and is currently rehabbing to expedite her time off the field. With the Bears currently trailing three teams for first in the conference, Henderson’s presence is crucial for Cal to even have a shot at winning the Pac-12 title and getting home field advantage for the second round of the WCWS. A series win against the Sun Devils would put the Bears in third place in the Pac-12 and drop Arizona State to fourth.

For the first time this season during conference play, the Bears will need to find another answer to fill in the gap on defense left by Henderson’s absence. Cal’s small glimmer of hope will lie in the hands of its reserve pitchers, freshman Nisa Ontiveros and sophomore Nikki Owens. An effective combination of both pitchers will be the only way to deter Arizona State’s offensive barrage consisting of six players batting [over] *more than* .350.

“[The biggest challenge is] definitely going to be keeping their batters off-balance,” said Ontiveros. “Not throw anything that their batters can get a hold of and have my defense help me out.”

With only two career starts in the circle, Owens only pitched against teams that the Bears have never lost against. Ontiveros has started five games and is 4-1 in those games. This series against Arizona State (39-7 overall, 10-5 Pac-12) will be the first opportunity for both pitchers to start during a conference game and truly showcase their skill against an elite offense.

The good news for the No. 10 Bears (35-9 overall, 9-6 Pac-12) is that the Sun Devils have been slumping recently. Arizona State dropped its last series against unranked Utah, which Cal already swept earlier this season. The Bears also won their last series against Oregon State and will be looking to keep the momentum flowing into the Arizona State series.

Cal needs to watch out for the Sun Devil’s onslaught of heavy hitters. The Arizona State stars, catcher Amber Freeman and shortstop Cheyenne Coyle, are the players that will most likely give Owens and Ontiveros the most trouble.

“After the Oregon State series when I left the game, the team stepped up a lot,” said Henderson. “Nisa stepped up into a very high pressure situation and did really well. The pitchers grew a lot during that [game] *game,* and I think they’ll grow even more during this series.”

Johnny Zhang covers softball. Contact him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @thejohnnyzhang.

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