With opportunity to move up in conference, Cal softball looks for sweep at UCLA

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There are instances where one is so sure something is going to happen, one would be willing to bet anything on it.

Entering Wednesday’s game against Saint Mary’s, the Cal softball team’s series record against the Gaels was 49-0. Not very surprisingly, the Bears clobbered Saint Mary’s in a 10-2 blowout even with pitcher Nikki Owens making her first career start in the circle.

“I was pretty nervous before the game since it was my first career start, but I knew my teammates were out there backing me up,” said Owens. “A great part about this team is that we’re all 100 percent invested in each other’s success, and they’re all going to back me up and do whatever it takes to back me up.”

Usually Owens’ role centers around relieving Cal’s pitching ace Jolene Henderson, but Owens was the one who backed the team this game.

Owens completed her first collegiate start spectacularly, only allowing two runs on three hits before freshman Nisa Ontiveros relieved her in the sixth inning.

The win could not come at a better time for the Bears.

Cal had its first losing weekend of the season last weekend against Oregon and will look to start a new win streak against No. 19 UCLA in a three-game series starting Thursday at Easton Stadium in Los Angeles.

All three of these games are must-wins for the Bears (31-6 overall, 6-3 in the Pac-12) in order to stay competitive in the championship hunt. So far, Cal has not swept any ranked opponents in conference play, but this weekend is the Bears’ best bet. UCLA (26-13 overall, 3-9 in the Pac-12) has been slumping recently with only two wins in its last ten games. UCLA also looks to rebound from dropping a series to unranked Utah last weekend.

The Bears won’t let losing their first conference series get to their heads. After the Oregon series, the team declared that the rankings and records were irrelevant to them, and there shouldn’t be any additional pressure against UCLA.

The other key for Cal will be how it handles UCLA’s dual-threat pitcher Ally Carda.

Carda is one of six players in the nation to be in double-digits in both wins and home runs; of this select group, she’s tied for first in wins with 17 to go along with her 11 dingers.

The matchup to watch will be between Carda and Henderson. Henderson, who is 25-5 on the season with a 1.31 ERA, has been a workhorse for the Bears.

Her pitching efficiency drives Cal’s defensive superiority. Henderson has 202 strikeouts in 208 innings.

Behind the strength of Henderson’s pitching, Cal hopes to drastically shift the fortunes of its conference schedule.

“I think that it will definitely help to have this game as a precursor to the series coming up, because we can get our confidence up and put some distance between this weekend and last weekend,” said Owens. “We’re just looking at this weekend as a fresh start to the Pac-12.”

Johnny Zhang covers softball. Contact him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @thejohnnyzhang.