Spring sports preview

Spring.Sports

Men’s Basketball

It’s the Cal men’s basketball team’s best conference start since 2003.

On the backs of Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon, the Bears have burst out to a 5-0 start in Pac-12 play. Solomon is averaging a double-double, while Cobbs’ 6.4 assists per game ranks second in the conference.

But what is most impressive about this team so far is the way it has turned up its level of play for the Pac-12, something Mike Montgomery’s teams are notorious for doing. In its five Pac-12 matches, Cal has outscored its opponents by an average of 14.4 points, with the last two wins coming by more than 20 each. And when nonconference stats are excluded, Cal has the most efficient offense and the second-most efficient defense in the Pac-12.

Maybe a five game sample size isn’t enough to be statistically significant. And those gaudy stats will certainly regress somewhat to the mean after Cal plays opponents such as UCLA and Arizona in the coming weeks.

But right now, one thing is clear: Cal is playing its best basketball of the season. Maybe that also means the Bears are peaking right now, two months before the NCAA Tournament. Or maybe Cal will continue to improve once it regains Ricky Kreklow and Jabari Bird settles back into the offense. It’s too early to tell.

What cannot be forgotten is that two of Cal’s four losses occurred with Solomon out due to injury and that with UCLA’s loss Saturday, Cal is now in the best position to challenge Arizona for the Pac-12 title.

— Riley McAtee

Women’s Basketball

Coming off a 32-win season and its first-ever trip to the Final Four in 2013, the Cal women’s basketball team is hungry for a repeat. Head coach Lindsay Gottlieb’s squad is already off to a strong start to the 2013-14 season, winning 12 of its first 16 games and riding some stellar play by juniors Reshanda Gray and Brittany Boyd.

Gray is putting up 16.5 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-3 forward ranks among the nation’s best with a .591 field goal percentage, and her dominance in the paint has been particularly crucial in the absence of All-American forward Gennifer Brandon, who recently rejoined the team after two months away due to unspecified personal reasons.

On the perimeter, Boyd has been fantastic for the Bears. The point guard is averaging 12.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 3.31 steals per game for the No. 15 Bears, and her all-around play will be needed as Cal tries to replicate its Final Four run of 2013. She has been placed on the preliminary ballots for a number of prominent awards reserved for the nation’s best players, including the Wooden Award, Wade Trophy, Lieberman Award and Naismith Trophy.

With Gray and Boyd putting up career numbers and a talented supporting cast bolstered by Brandon’s return to action, Cal is on the hunt for a Pac-12 crown and another deep run in the NCAA Tournament in 2014.

— Josh Netter

 

Baseball

After a disappointing 2013 season that saw David Esquer’s Bears finish 29-25 and tied for eighth in the Pac-12, the Cal men’s baseball team is looking to hit one out of the park this season.

While the team has 28 players returning, the Bears will be without star Andrew Knapp, whom the Philadelphia Phillies took in the second round of the MLB Draft. Last year, Knapp led the team in batting average (.350), on-base-percentage (.434) and slugging percentage (.544). Knapp, a catcher and utility infielder, also led in hits, doubles, walks and total bases and was tied for most home runs.

Redshirt senior Devon Rodriguez, 2011’s Most Outstanding Player at the NCAA Houston Regional, looks to be Knapp’s heir apparent, but the first-baseman and designated hitter has suffered from injuries.

Other breakout stars could include junior Chris Paul, who finished second in slugging percentage (.399); junior Brenden Farney, who had a .288 batting average and is known for his stellar defense in the middle infield; and sophomore Devin Pearson, who had the second-highest batting average (.288) and combines great speed and arm strength in center field.

The starting pitching will likely include sophomore pitchers Collin Monsour (2.87 earned run average) and Ryan Mason (3.76 ERA) and senior Kyle Porter (3.55 ERA). It could be boosted by freshman Trevin Haseltine, the No. 1 right-handed-pitcher in California, according to Perfect Game USA.

The Bears’ first test will be a three-game series at home that begins Feb. 14 against Texas, which is ranked No. 20 in preseason polls.

— Shannon Carroll

Softball

With the graduation of star pitcher Jolene Henderson, Cal’s softball team enters the 2014 season with the need to prove itself a top contender among steep preseason and Pac-12 competition.

This task might pose a challenge for a squad that finished the 2013 season short of its postseason aspirations.

At this time last year, the Bears ranked third in the country and expected to compete for postseason honors after narrowly missing the 2012 National Championship title. The Bears instead ended the 2013 season with a strong 39-19 record but fell a few games short of Super Regionals in postseason play.

Last year’s struggles were rooted in an 0-6 losing streak while Henderson sat out with a torn ACL. Henderson served as Cal’s winningest pitcher in school history with 130 wins over four years and finished her senior season with a 1.22 ERA.

In her absence, Cal’s offensive struggles became apparent. Even with senior co-captain Lindsey Ziegenhirt healthy and leading the team in RBIs, the Bears slipped in conference play and were unable to fully bounce back in the postseason.

While it doesn’t seem likely they’ll be able to find a way to adequately replace Henderson, Cal softball coach Diane Ninemire’s teams are known for finding a way to win. Now entering her 27th season as head coach, she has led the Bears to 26 consecutive NCAA postseason appearances and accumulated more than 1,100 career wins.

With promising pitcher Nisa Ontiveros in the circle and months of offseason practice, this year’s team has had the time to adapt to playing without its star that it lacked last season.

— Dani Jo Coony

 

Women’s Swim

After a successful training trip to Hawaii, the Cal women’s swim team is headed back to Berkeley to kick off the new season.

As the 2014 season begins, the No. 1 Bears will have all eyes on them as they attempt to keep their top spot. The expectations for this season are high, with sophomore Elizabeth Pelton and freshman Missy Franklin taking the spotlight.

Both Pelton and Franklin, two of the top backstrokers in the country, will be heavy factors in the Bears’ hopeful success. Cal has an All-American in Pelton, who is the reigning NCAA champion. She recently edged Franklin, who owns the world record for the 200-meter distance, on the 200-yard backstroke this past month at the Winter Nationals. Franklin also managed to set two school records and snag five races, ultimately leading her to become Pac-12 Swimmer of the Month of December.

But Pelton and Franklin were not the only ones to stand out at the Nationals, as Cal had numerous other swimmers recognized in the events. Junior Melanie Klaren took fourth, followed by senior Stephanie Au and freshman Sophia Batchelor in the same 200-back final.

While some swimmers stand out in particular, it is safe to say the whole Cal women’s swim team is capable of pulling off wins, as showcased in the Nationals and the prior 2013 season. The Bears are looking to get off to a good start in 2014 with their first meets against Arizona State and Arizona, where they can prove that despite the break, they won’t be missing a beat.

— Alicia Fong

Men’s Swim

A new year means a new set of expectations for the Cal men’s swim team. Coach David Durden’s squad had a very impressive fall showing, including sweeping dual meets against Pacific, Indiana and Wisconsin.

The Bears concluded the first half of their 2013-14 season with strong performances at the AT&T Winter National Championships in December. The squad placed second in team scores behind Michigan, the perpetual thorn in Cal’s side, which prevented the Bears from capturing a third straight NCAA title last season. Perhaps more importantly, the AT&T Winter National Championships introduced some of the stronger competition the Bears will face in the spring during the second half of their year.

Esteemed as one of the best collegiate swim programs in the nation, Cal has established an environment of sustained excellence both in and out of the pool under Durden’s leadership. Prestige and continued success means the Bears have been subject to high standards and have set lofty goals the past few years, which is indicative of their dominance in the sport.

The team will continue honing its skills in five more dual meets against Arizona State, Arizona, CSU Bakersfield, USC and eternal rival Stanford. The Pac-12 Championships in early March will be the final precursor to the NCAA Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships, which the squad has set its sights on winning. The Bears are considered one of the favorites to capture the national championship title as they did in back-to-back seasons in 2011 and 2012 before finishing as runners-up in 2013.

— Michelle Lee

 

Men’s Tennis

Seventeen is a familiar number for the Cal men’s tennis team heading into the second half of the season. The team was recently ranked No. 17 in an ITA poll, the same place it ended last season.

While the fall season contained sound play from seasoned veterans and surprising contributions by freshmen and transfer students, the team also suffered disappointments.

The beginning of the season was plagued with injuries as senior Ben McLachlan suffered an ankle injury that forced him to partake in only a few tournaments as a wild card. Senior Campbell Johnson, the next top player, also faced some injuries at the start of the year. Johnson, however, was able to lead the team by winning a Regionals singles crown and having impressive appearances in a variety of tournaments.

The depth of the Bears’ team ended up being both a strength and a weakness. At San Francisco’s Battle of the Bay tournament, Johnson lost in the final, 6-0, 6-2, to freshman teammate Andre Goransson. But by a team effort, the team claimed the singles, doubles and team titles at the ITA Northwest Championships.

While the team has captured some victories, the inconsistency of veteran players and an unclear starting lineup stopped the team from having more success against inferior opponents. The season ahead for Cal only gets tougher, as it will have to face Pac-12 opponents such as No. 2 UCLA and No. 4 USC. Whether the team can beat these higher ranked opponents and get farther in winnable tournaments will determine whether 17 is still its number.

— Alaina Getzenberg

Women’s Tennis

The Cal women’s tennis team’s fall season can only be described as a disappointment. Despite a team consisting of four ranked players, the team finished the season without any deep ITA national tournament runs or individual ITA regional titles. But the last two tournaments of the season revealed potential for a strong spring season when team play begins.

The Bears’ top four players will return this spring, led by Zsofi Susanyi and Anett Schutting, who held the No. 4 and No. 5 positions at the beginning of the season, respectively.

Despite a strong showing at the Cal Nike Invitational, where Susanyi defeated Schutting in the finals, the Bears were met with a flurry of disappointments for the remainder of the season. The team, used to competing for the entirety of a tournament, was sent home early at nearly every tournament as both Susanyi and Schutting failed to advance deep in any event.

It was newcomers Denise Starr and Maegan Manasse that helped rebound the team from a string of disappointing performances when they advanced deep into the ITA/USTA Northwest Regional Championships. They then followed up their impressive debut with a record-breaking performance at the prestigious ITA National Indoor Championships. They made history when Starr defeated Manasse in the finals, marking the first time two freshmen played each other in the finals.

With four ranked players and two of the best freshman players in the country, Cal has the potential to compete with any team in the conference and the nation.

— Winston Cho

Women’s Water Polo

Finishing a season ranked No. 5 in the country would be considered a success for most teams, but for the 2013 Cal women’s water polo team, fifth wasn’t good enough. In the current format, only three spots are available for the Pac-12 to compete in the NCAAs.

For the Bears and their 17-7 record, the season came to an abrupt and disappointing halt when UCLA’s Rachel Fattal scored late in the fourth quarter in the MPSF tournament. With a 4-3 win, the Bruins earned a bid to the tournament while the Bears climbed out the pool with no choice but to think about what’s to come in 2014.

This spring, the expectations are still very much the same for Cal, who is in the national title conversation every year.

With only one senior in Ashley Young for 2014, Cal will have to rely on many new faces. Junior driver Michelle Caron, who had 14 goals last season, will look to build off her 2013 success.

With a lack of upperclassmen, the burden will be placed on Cal’s freshman cast. Of the freshmen, the most notable is Hungarian Olympian Dora Antal, who is already making an impact with her three goals against Pacific.

With so many changes to its roster, there will be a lot of question marks as to how Cal will do this year. Despite the youthful new look of the Bears, 2014 will not be considered a rebuilding year.

— Richard Lee