Cal softball looks to continue playoff streak in upcoming season

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Although the No. 24 Cal softball team has missed the postseason only once in head coach Diane Ninemire’s 28-year run as the Bears’ head coach, the team begins the 2017 season in a familiar position — under the radar.

After starting off last season ranked No. 21, the Bears were picked by conference coaches to finish sixth in the Pac-12, which is exactly where they stood at the end of the season. While the team sported a solid batting average and powerful arms on the mound, the team as a whole was unable to reach its end goals. Despite just a 9-11-1 conference record, Ninemire’s squad did enough to qualify for the NCAA Regional Tournament, but was quickly eliminated by No. 6 Alabama, 8-0.

While the Bears once again will kickoff the year in the top 25, the team is still currently ranked behind five other Pac-12 schools, including No. 8 UCLA and No. 9 Oregon. Once conference play begins, Cal will hardly have a moment of rest in a stacked conference.

The heart of last year’s team, which finished 33-24-1 overall, was largely centered around it’s starting rotation. The pitching staff was as good as any in the conference, compiling an ERA of 2.98 and an equally impressive 306 strikeouts. 189 of those strikeouts came from senior Nisa Ontiveros, who concluded her final year with a dazzling 2.05 ERA. It will be tough for any one player to fill the void left by Ontiveros, but redshirt sophomore transfer Zoe Conley, who Ninemire says adds to the depth of Cal’s rotation, will be looking to try.

“I think our pitching depth is great this year,” Ninemire said. “Conley has done a great job so far with her pitching and did well this past fall when we had our fall games. Our other pitchers who have been here in the past have all stepped up and improved in many ways too.”

With it’s star pitcher gone, the Bears will rely more heavily on an experienced lineup that is hungry to keep coach Ninemire’s postseason streak alive. The lineup card features 2016 All-Pac-12 First Team selection junior Jazmyn Jackson, who led the entire conference in hits (82) and played in all of Cal’s 58 games. Along with Jackson, the Bears deep lineup will feature senior infielder Kylie Reed, junior infielder Kobie Pettis and former Tennessee transfer Annie Aldrete. Earlier this week, Aldrete and Jackson were named to the 2017 D1 Softball News Player of the Year Watchlist.

“I’m really excited to see where the season goes,” Jackson said. “Right now, though, we’re just taking it short term and seeing where we end up going.”

While last year’s team was built around pitching, it’s evident that the team has the ability to take a significant step forward at the plate this season. The team’s top five hitters, who all batted over .300 last season, are returning, making the Bears a bigger threat to opposing rotations than last year’s lineup.

“We have to play one game at a time, but our goal is, at is it every year, to qualify for the postseason,” Ninemire said. “That’s where we want to be at the end, and give ourselves an opportunity to do some really great things.”

Josh Yuen covers softball. Contact him at [email protected].