Bears to open much-anticipated campaign in Tempe tournament

As the month of February labors on and the lull between the end of football season and the beginning of baseball season begins, sports fans retreat into a type of sports-fan hibernation. They patiently wait for any type of relevant free-agent news and desperately attempt to find any type of sport to focus their attention, if only temporarily.

Over on Levine-Fricke Field, the sounds of metal bats pinging against over-sized green baseballs fill the temperate Berkeley air. Anywhere else in the country, softball teams are likely inside, practicing in hitting cages or watching film. But in sunny California, the Cal softball team has no earthly restrictions.

To Valerie Arioto (recently named to the 2012 US National Team), Jolene Henderson (All-American) and the other members of the Cal nine, this sect of the season isn’t a void waiting to be filled; rather, it is the commencement of the fruit of their labors.

The beginning of any season springs hope eternal for all teams. Everyone starts on the same plane, with the same number of wins and losses, no one team having an advantage over another. 

This Bears’ squad may have a bit more to be optimistic about, however. The NCAA ranks Cal as the No. 3 team in the country, just behind Arizona State and Alabama.

This weekend, the Bears will have a chance to demonstrate whether the work they put in will become self-evident and whether the hype surrounding their season will be legitimate. Cal faces off against No. 9 Tennessee on Friday at 10:30 a.m. in the Kajikawa Classic, held in Tempe, Ariz.

The Kaijkawa Classic is an annual tradition hosted by the Sun Devils. In addition to the Tennessee game, Cal will also face off against Bradley and Texas State on Saturday, and Syracuse.

Tennessee comes to Tempe fresh off a SEC-championship winning season, in which the Lady Vols advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the ninth time in school history. 

They return four All-Americans and all three pitchers from their 2011 squad. Junior infielder Lauren Gibson hit .420 with a .521 OBP last season and was named to the US National Team alongside Arioto. Ellen and Ivy Renfroe shoulder most of the pitching load for Tennessee, combining for 353 innings and 416 strikeouts.

“This first game against Tennesese — we’ve never played straight-out first game a top ranked school,” said Cal outfielder Jamia Reid. “We’ve never done that.”

Although the Bears’ opposition appears intimidating, this early season matchup serves primarily as a preseason warm-up, giving a bunch of good teams a chance to shake off the cobwebs in 75-degree weather.

But make no mistake about it: Cal will treat this tournament like it’s the NCAAs. Because when you’re striving for a championship, you have to be on point all season. 

For the Bears, the Kajikawa Classic is day one of a struggle to be the best in college softball. Let the games begin.