No place I’d rather be: Danielle Henderson’s passion for game has been crucial to her rise to top of softball world

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Kore Chan/Senior Staff

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Thwack
“Again.”

Thwack. “Again.” Thwack.

Another swing and miss as the ball hits the backstop once more.

“Again.”

Pitch after pitch, Cal softball senior captain Danielle Henderson diligently digs into the box, focusing on the person in the circle. The pitcher — her older sister, Jolene — readies the next pitch — another changeup.

The pitch is released.

Thwack.

“Come on — stop trying to strike me out!” yells a frustrated Danielle. But despite her annoyance, she readies her batting stance once more, thinking of adjustments she can make in order to hit the next one.

The sisters are in their backyard, where their father, Joe Henderson, has constructed a regulation-size softball field, backstop and all. It is there that Danielle works tirelessly on hitting the changeup. Jolene throws her off-speed pitch until Danielle can get it right, and eventually, she does.

“Don’t get me wrong — (Jolene would) sneak a couple by me because she’s amazing, but she would just keep throwing me changeups, and I started making adjustments,” Danielle says. “I think that really played a huge part in what made me the hitter I am today, because I have a sister that can throw me every single pitch.”

Practicing against the winningest pitcher in Cal history has its perks — Danielle’s power at the plate labels her as one of the most deadly and effective hitters in the Pac-12.

Despite the showdown between the two sisters, there is no competition. Competitiveness, absolutely — but no competition. Danielle’s personal growth only ever meant one thing when it came to her family and her journey to UC Berkeley: support.

Danielle’s story begins like that of any other tee-ball hopeful. She learned the fundamentals of the game with her mom, Mickey Henderson, serving as her first coach. By the time Joe took over as Danielle’s coach, Danielle was an 8-year-old with a love for the game.

Hours were spent in the garage, hitting off a tee and into a net. When Danielle and her sister outgrew the garage, her dad’s solution was to build them an outdoor batting cage. Not satisfied with just the batting cage, the plans to construct an actual softball field began to take place until Danielle and her family essentially had their very own sports complex at their home.

As Danielle’s softball skills continued to improve, so did her dad’s coaching. While Danielle was working on her swing in the garage, her father was right there beside her. Joe would attend coaching clinics and study different coaching methods in order to be the best coach available to his daughter, and he succeeded.

“There’s a special bond that we have,” Joe says. “She’ll finish a three-game series and come home, and not only do we get a load of laundry, but dad and daughter will get together and I’ll throw some pitches to her. (Coaching Danielle) was one of the best experiences of my life.”

Because of Joe’s coaching and Danielle’s hard work, Danielle was good enough to play in an older age group by the time she was 13. This allowed her to play on the same team as Jolene, who is two years older.

Like any siblings, Danielle and Jolene pushed each other to be the best they could be. Despite having opposite personalities — Danielle is the more quiet, reserved one — the sisters became best friends. Brought together by the sport, the two were inseparable, and their bond showed on the field. Together, along with current Cal teammate Cheyenne Cordes and now-Cal alumna Lindsey Ziegenhirt, the sisters’ Lady Magic travel team won the 16-and-under ASA National Title in 2008.

“(Jolene and Danielle) have a very special relationship as sisters, and Jolene is very protective of Danielle,” Joe says of the sisters’ closeness. “They complement each other — I think on the field you can see. It’s one thing to be competitive, but you can also see their genuine caring for each other.”henderson3

Though Danielle committed herself to the sport at a young age, her dedication did not sprout from an initial desire to play college softball. Instead, her commitment stemmed from her love of the game, mixed with her perfectionist personality. One result of Danielle’s unwavering determination is perhaps the most important one: It earned her a spot with Cal.

Before her career as a Golden Bear began, Danielle was already familiar with the type of player the Cal coaches were looking for. Sitting in the stands while her sister attended Cal softball camps, Danielle was too young to participate but knew she could compete with the older girls. In the summer before eighth grade, she signed up for the Cal camp and quickly established herself as one of the hardest workers there.

Leaving with a handful of things she needed to work on, Danielle worked for an entire year to perfect these details. The next year, Danielle came back to the camp, and Cal head coach Diane Ninemire recognized Danielle’s determined efforts, marking the beginning of her path to Cal. With her sister already committed to play for the Bears, Danielle realized she wanted to attend Cal as well.

Unlike most sports, the recruitment process for softball starts at a very early age. When offered the chance, Danielle verbally committed to Cal at the age of 14 during the summer between her freshman and sophomore year of high school — but not before asking one final question: “What about Cheyenne?”

Danielle and fellow senior captain Cheyenne Cordes met in middle school, where they played travel softball together and quickly became best friends. It was shortly thereafter that the two teenagers decided one concrete thing in their otherwise undecided future: They were a package deal.

To an outsider, their dream of playing together would seem to be just that: a dream. The probability of two best friends being recruited by one of the top schools in the nation seemed slim. And yet, the reality of Danielle’s situation was, in fact, her dream come true: Danielle and Cheyenne committed to Cal a week apart.

“I remember telling my mom one time, ‘Mom, I really just want to play and go where Hendu goes. I feel like it’s that important to me that I want to play with her,’ ” says Cheyenne of the bond between the two. “We used to call each other ‘Pack-Edge.’ It was ‘package,’ but we spelled it ‘Pack-Edge.’ ”

Looking at the accolades the two have earned throughout their time at Cal, it is clear that both Danielle and Cheyenne made it to Berkeley of their own accord: Both have earned numerous All Pac-12 awards and NFCA-All-Pacific team honors. Now the two are finishing their Cal careers how they started them — together.

When Danielle entered her freshman year at UC Berkeley, she was joining an already established powerhouse of a team. The Bears were fresh off an appearance in the College World Series, ending the season ranked fifth in the nation. Danielle’s sister had just won Pac-10 pitcher of the year. But for Danielle, there was no apprehension about starting her career at Cal.

“For Danielle, yes, she loves her sister — and yes, she wanted to be with her,” Joe says. “But she made it quite clear to the Cal coaching staff that she was going (to UC Berkeley) based on her own merits and not on the shirttails of Jolene Henderson.”

Nobody can question Danielle’s hard-earned place in the Cal program with the kind of statistics she has acquired over the past four years. Throughout her career as a Bear, Danielle has grown to become one of Cal’s most consistent players, both on offense and defense.

Her freshman year, Danielle recorded only four total errors in 64 starts at third base. Sophomore year, she earned an All-Pac 12 Honorable Mention and an NFCA All-Pacific Region First Team selection. She ended the 2014 season with a .345 batting average and a .503 on-base percentage.

This year, Danielle was selected to the All-Pac 12 First Team and the conference’s All-Defensive team. With a .384 batting average and 14 home runs, Danielle’s cleanup spot in the lineup is well justified. Boasting a .994 fielding percentage, Danielle can be found either at third base or in the catcher’s position, adapting to wherever the team needs her to be.

While others may consider Danielle’s determination to perfect her game as a necessity when competing in a notoriously difficult conference such as the Pac-12, she views it as an extension of her unconditional love for the game.

“I guess that’s where I set myself apart from most people, because they play this game for an outcome, and I play just because I love playing softball,” Danielle says. “I have certain expectations for myself. I feel if I can do it once, I should be able to do it again. I overwork, I guess. That’s what they always tell me. I don’t feel like that. I’m just playing the game I love, so it’s easy.”henderson2

Graduating this spring with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, you won’t catch Danielle in the overcrowded sea of seniors waiting to walk the stage. Instead, she’ll be on a much larger stage, competing for the chance to make it to Oklahoma for the coveted Women’s College World Series. Come Friday, Danielle and the rest of the Bears will be kicking off the NCAA tournament in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

And yet, even after the Bears’ journey to the College World Series eventually comes to a close, Danielle’s softball days are far from over.

Chosen in the first round of the 2015 National Pro Fastpitch College Draft in March, Danielle will be heading to the Dallas Charge after being the fourth overall pick in the NPF draft. With Danielle’s dreams of playing professionally coming true, it seems only fitting that once again her sister is at her side — Jolene signed with the Charge in January.

But until then, Danielle will focus on seeing her dream of winning the national championship come true.

Thwack.

“Again.”

The wind up, and the pitch.

Wait for it.

Crack.

Alicia Fong covers softball. Contact her at [email protected]