The 2017 season saw the Cal softball team at a bit of a crossroads. While the Bears feasted on relatively weak opponents, they couldn’t find the winning formula when it came time to battle with the best of the best.
But a new season provides a fresh start, and with a new star added into the mix, Cal has another opportunity it belongs among the nation’s best.
After spending most of the season ranked in the low 20s before sliding out towards the backend of the season, Cal begins 2018 at No. 27 with 30 points, only a few points behind No. 26 Texas State.
Climbing back into the nation’s top 25 right off the bat won’t be an easy task, as No. 24 Oklahoma State and No. 25 Georgia received 77 and 71 points to begin the season, respectively.
Cal, however, has a relatively easy schedule to begin the season as a chunk of its first games of the season come against unranked Northern California opponents such as Santa Clara, Sacramento State and UC Davis.
Should each team’s current respective national standing remain the same, the Bears’ first 13 games of the season will come against unranked opponents. Cal’s first real challenge won’t come until Feb. 23, when it takes on the cream of the crop in No. 6 Texas A&M.
The Bears were a dominant team last year in nonconference play, posting a record of 26-7, but they got smacked by the brick wall that is the Pac-12 and finished conference play 6-17.
The Pac-12 is destined to be as competitive as ever with multiple in-conference opponents eyeing championships of their own. Currently, there are six ranked Pac-12 teams — No. 3 Oregon, No. 4 Washington, No. 5 UCLA, No. 7 Arizona, No. 15 Utah and No. 23 Arizona State.
Against those teams last season, Cal had a combined record of 1-16, with the lone victory coming by way of a dominant effort by then-redshirt sophomore pitcher Zoe Conley, who tossed a complete game one-hitter.
Cal’s star hurler was one of the top workhorses on the mound last season, pitching 24 complete games en route to 223.0 total innings, the second most in the Pac-12, all while recording an ERA of 2.67.
With Katie Sutherland-Finch and Stephanie Trzcinski having graduated, one of the main challenges which head coach Diane Ninemire faces is finding another pitcher to accompany her star.
Of Ninemire’s current options, junior Kamalani Dung may be a suitable replacement for Sutherland-Finch and Trzcinski, and then some.
Dung, a transfer from Fresno State, is a dynamo in her own right, having pitched 254.1 innings and 31 complete games while finishing the season with a 2.23 ERA, a campaign stellar enough to earn her Mountain West Pitcher of the Year.
There’s a little bit of history between Conley and Dung, as the two hurlers faced off last season at Levine-Fricke Field. Dung was on the verge of a complete game shutout, but she allowed a pair of runs in the seventh inning, allowing the Bears to walk-off. Needless to say, Dung will have plenty more opportunities to duel on that field, albeit as a Bear.
Conley and Dung are both familiar with going deep into ball games, but it will be intriguing to see how Ninemire manages their pitch count.
With a formidable one-two punch in the circle to complement an offense headed by senior Jazmyn Jackson and junior Lindsay Rood, Cal has the potential to make some noise in a stacked Pac-12 conference.