No. 21 Cal softball prepares for Kajikawa Classic

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Timothy Dawson/File

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The sharp and satisfying snap of the ball hitting the back of a nicely worn in leather glove resounded through Levine-Fricke Field as the No. 21 Cal women’s softball team warmed up for practice Tuesday afternoon. The arm that caused this robust auditory experience belongs to Nisa Ontiveros, one of the three seniors playing for the Bears this year. It is this power — both physical and mental — that Cal will need as it heads to the Kajikawa Classic this weekend in Tempe, Arizona, and faces tough opponents in Wisconsin, Notre Dame, CSU Northridge and Indiana.

The Bears will face off with the unranked Badgers, will return eight starters from a team that finished 21-31 in their 2015 season, Friday morning. Senior pitcher Taylor-Paige Stewart could pose a threat to Cal’s hitters as she comes off a 2015 season where she recorded a team-high 124 strikeouts. In the past the Bears have had issues getting big hits when needed, which means that as they begin their season they must be mindful of Stewart’s throwing ability.

Although they’ve had issues hitting in the past, head coach Diane Ninemire doesn’t doubt that the Bears have the ability to score when called upon.

“We have speed that will help us down the road to manufacture runs when we don’t always get the big hit,” Ninemire said.

Up next, Cal will go head to head with the No. 24 Fighting Irish led by captains Carly Piccinich and Karley Wester. Notre Dame boasts a junior- and senior-heavy team and returns all of its pitchers from the previous season, which has allowed it to form one of the strongest pitching staffs in the ACC. Cal has a similar situation with its pitchers this season — the Bears have a five-pitcher rotation that will allow players to maximize their time on the mound and contribute their particular skill set.

The Fighting Irish should be the toughest opponent that the Bears face in Tempe, but that should not discount their next two opponents — CSU Northridge and Indiana. The Matadors are returning 90 percent of their offense — doubles, triples, home runs, and stolen bases — from 2015, which should make their offense extremely efficient and effective. But Cal’s team of speedy infielders and outfielders, including sophomores Kobie Pettis and Taurie Pogue, should be able to handle everything that comes their way.

“The young kids bring a wealth of talent to this program,” Ninemire said, “We’re also going to have to play great defense and get some timely hits.”

Finally, the Bears will end their first road trip Sunday morning against the Hoosiers. Indiana is returning eight of its nine hitters with the most at-bats from 2015 as well as the players that contributed to setting five offensive program records in the previous season. Cal’s outfield must be weary of the Hoosier’s best hitters Kelsey Dotson and Erin Lehman. Indiana’s weakness, though, comes in the form of their young pitching staff, which should allow the Bears to find an offensive rhythm early on.

And Cal’s offense is no joke — sophomore Jazmyn Jackson is coming off a 2015 freshman season where she led the team with a .446 batting average. As her sophomore season begins, she can only hope to improve on that average. The Bears will also turn to junior Kylie Reed and senior Vanessa Alvarez, who had the fifth and sixth best batting averages, respectively, on the team last season.

“These girls are energetic and anxious. This weekend will be a lot about whether they can stay within themselves and not overdrive themselves. For the veterans, their job will be keeping an eye on the younger players and encouraging them,” Ninemire said.

Sophie Goethals covers softball. Contact her at [email protected]