No. 21 Cal softball heads back for home opener against Pacific

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Beginning a season with a tournament in Puerto Rico is unquestionably an exciting way to lead off the year. Playing back-to-back weekends in beautiful Palm Springs, California isn’t too shabby either. But any team — be it at the professional, collegiate or even high school level — will agree that one thing holds true when it comes to playing fields: There’s no place like home.

After spending its first 13 contests of 2017 away from Levine-Fricke Field, the home of the Bears since 1995, the No. 21 Cal softball team (12-1) returns to Berkeley on Wednesday for its home opener. The Bears, fresh off a 4-0 weekend at the Mary Nutter Classic II, will host University of the Pacific (6-7) of the West Coast Conference in a battle between Northern California schools.

Pacific doesn’t look like much of a threat on paper, especially considering that the Bears are bringing a nine-game win streak back to Berkeley. Only two hitters in Pacific’s lineup are batting above .300 (min. 20 plate appearances), although senior Cassidy Gustafson and junior Sydney Lahners represent two bats that are capable of hitting the long ball. The rest of the team has hit just one home run all year.

A pitching duel between a member of Cal’s well-built rotation and the Tigers’ phenom junior Marissa Young, however, could very well be in store, should Tigers head coach Liz Yandall opt to start her ace. That’s the beauty of softball: An inconsistent offense always has a chance to step up as long as the pitcher is on her game.

Although the Tigers are just 3-5 in their last eight games, all but one of those matchups were decided by two runs or less, including all five of their most recent tournament games. Last week, Young was honored for the fifth time in her career as WCC Pitcher of the Week. The numbers speak for themselves: In one weekend, including two starts and three overall appearances, Young threw 16 frames, encompassing 13 strikeouts and allowing just one earned run.

Another pitcher capable of putting up such numbers? Cal pitcher Zoe Conley, the former CSU Northridge standout who has burst onto the scene for head coach Diane Ninemire’s rotation. Of the Bears’ 12 wins, Conley’s early-season résumé owns seven of those, including a complete game shutout against Nebraska last Saturday.

Facing Power 5 conference opponents for the first time this past weekend, Cal relied on stellar performances on the mound and timely hits to propel its record to a sparkling 12-1, good for third in the Pac-12. Among the team’s four wins this weekend was Sunday’s 5-4 walk-off win over Ohio State, which concluded with senior Khala Taylor’s second walk-off single in as many weekends. The Bears will need to once again execute in the late innings, especially if the Tigers send Young to the hill in their bid to stun Cal on its own turf.

With sunny skies set for Wednesday’s 3 p.m. first pitch and a team returning home after an undefeated weekend, Conley, Taylor and the rest of the squad will seek to extend the win streak to double digits.

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