No. 1 Cal hosts speedy ‘Cats

Levy Yun/File
The No. 1 Cal softball team has three players who were named in the top 25 finalists for the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year: Valerie Arioto, Jolene Henderson and Jamia Reid.

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Arizona thinks of itself as a roadblock. Cal hopes the opponent will be nothing but a speedbump.

The Cal softball team will face No. 13 Arizona in a three-game home series that kicks off Friday at 3 p.m. at Levine-Fricke Field. The Wildcats are third in the Pac-12 and have won nine of their last 11 games. Arizona travels to Berkeley with the hopes of knocking off the No. 1 Bears.  While preserving its own eminence is at the forefront for Cal, the Bears have more on their minds than just winning.

Following an alumnae event on Saturday recognizing the program’s 2002 National Championship, Sunday will feature the inaugural Support the Troops day. This cause has special significance for senior outfielder Frani Echavarria, whose brother Senior Airman Ronnie Echavarria will throw the first pitch.

“I have two brothers serving, and as much as they do to protect us and keep our country safe we want to say thank you,” Echavarria said. “As small as it is, we want to do something to honor these great people.”

Yet despite of all of the weekend’s festivities, Cal’s primary goal is clear: to sweep yet another conference series. The Bears are considered the top team in the nation by both polls and remain the only team in the Pac-12 without a loss. Cal (37-1, 9-0 in Pac-12) suffered its only loss a month ago against Hawaii in extra innings. Since that point, the Bears have dominated all other competition and maintained their No. 1 ranking. They have swept series against two top-10 teams already in Stanford and Washington, as well as unranked Utah, and they hope to see the streak continue.

Further adding to Cal’s high spirits is Wednesday’s announcement that three Bears — Valerie Arioto, Jolene Henderson and Jamia Reid — were named in the top 25 finalists for the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year. The award is the highest honor in Division I softball.

“I’m definitely very proud to be their teammate,” Echavarria said. “It is a great accomplishment and they deserve it. It speaks volumes of our team to have three of them up for it, and more who could have been. They all have great leadership, and we are all standing behind them and we hope one of them gets it.”

However, while the Bears are entering the weekend with a lot of positive momentum, Arizona (28-10, 7-5) is definitely an obstacle looming in the Bears’ way of moving forward. Arizona is the third ranked Pac-12 opponent that Cal will face and is on a hot streak of its own.

“They are going to come out with their best nine,” Echavarria said. “When you are No. 1, everyone wants to come out and knock you off. If we come out and play like we have been, we are the stronger team. But just because we haven’t lost doesn’t mean that Arizona can’t beat us.”

Arizona will certainly try. The squad boasts the nation’s top fielding percentage (.985), and pitcher Kenzie Fowler is an alum of last year’s top-25 list for Player of the Year. Furthermore, Echavarria emphasized Arizona’s speed, power, and tendency to force fast-paced games as threats. Levine-Fricke Field promises to serve as the battlefield between two defensively potent teams.

“The team that makes the least amount of errors will come out strong and probably take the win,” Echavarria said. “If we play to our strengths, we will be able to capitalize on anything they throw at us. If we stick to our game, their game won’t be able to catch us.”