Henderson returns as Cal softball battles Washington

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Just a season ago, the Cal softball team was at the pinnacle of the Pac-12, boasting a 58-7 record at the end of the season.

But ever since All-American Jolene Henderson hurt her leg more than two weeks ago this season, the Bears haven’t won a single game.

Cal’s recent seven-game losing streak mirrors the number of games last year’s Cal team lost all season. The Bears need a savior­ — and with the Women’s College World Series just around the corner, Henderson’s return could not come at a better time. Head coach Diane Ninemire expects to ease Henderson back in from injury by playing her a few pitches in this upcoming series.

“With Jolene, she brings a lot of confidence to the mound, and I think that’s very contagious to the team,” said pitcher Nikki Owens. “I think her mentality brings a lot to the field, and it’s hard to compensate when she’s not on it.”

Desperately in need of a win to end the losing streak, Cal (35-15, 9-12 Pac-12) will face No. 11 Washington this Thursday night in a three-game series in Seattle at Husky Stadium. This will be the Bears’ last series of the regular season before they advance to the WCWS.

After being swept by Arizona State and Bay Area rival Stanford, Cal has plummeted to No. 20 in the NCAA rankings, in which it stood at No. 3 at the beginning of the season. Henderson’s return should not only give the Bears the pitching edge they have lacked in the past two series, but it should also restore the confidence they lost during their losing streak.

Hoping to find its stride again, Cal will need to win this series against the Huskies (36-14, 14-7 Pac-12) to prove that it can survive in the postseason. But considering the strength of the Huskies’ offense, a series win will still be a tall order.

“Washington is a really good hitting team,” said third-baseman Danielle Henderson. “They have a lot of girls that can hit for power. The defense really needs to have the pitchers’ backs, and the offense needs to do their job.”

Jolene Henderson will not be coming back during a game she can just cruise her way through. Led by Victoria Hayward, Hooch Fagaly and Kaitlin Inglesby, Washington’s offense is among the best in the Pac-12. The Huskies’ offense is batting a combined .313, while Cal’s offense is a mere .268.

To make the situation even more difficult, the Huskies have only lost three games at home this entire season, while the Bears have been mediocre on the road with a 7-6 away record, especially against Pac-12 opponents.

However, the Bears see their underdog position as a plus rather than an obstacle and will use that to their advantage.

“I don’t think anyone expects us to do well this series other than ourselves, so if we just hold ourselves to our own expectations and play with no pressure, then we’ll play a lot better,” Owens said.

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