With Henderson’s return, Cal softball seeks first postseason win against Central Michigan

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Despite a nine-game losing streak and a fifth-place finish in the Pac-12, the Cal softball team might just be the team that nobody wants to face in the postseason.

Due in large part to Jolene Henderson’s healthy return to the circle, the Bears (36-17) finally resemble the team they were during their 24-game winning streak in pre-conference play. With its Pac-12 struggles now just a remnant of the past, Cal feels like it is finally coming together.

“I think we’re firing on all cylinders right now,” said sophomore shortstop Cheyenne Cordes. “We’re all getting healthy. We’re all on the come-up.”

Starting on Friday in Ann Arbor, Mich., Cal will open postseason play in the NCAA Softball Tournament Regionals against Central Michigan (33-18). The winner of the series will go on to face the victor of the eighth-seeded Michigan (45-10) and Valparaiso (34-25) matchup.

In a double-elimination style tournament, the winner of the Michigan Regional will advance to the Super Regional round, where it will face off against the winner of the LSU Regional.

Just two hours from Ann Arbor, CMU should hold a home-field advantage over Cal, even though the regional location is considered neutral for both squads. CMU currently boasts a team batting average of .286, led by senior outfielder Macy Merchant and her .415 batting average.

The Bears’ hopes will rest on the shoulders and the injured left knee of Henderson. Despite missing six games due to injury, the All-American still led the Pac-12 with 35 starts, 28 wins, 262.2 innings pitched and an ERA of 1.20. However, with the inconsistencies of Cal’s offensive attack, Henderson can’t afford any major slip-ups. The Bears finished the season with a team batting average of .267 — the worst in the conference.

“I think it all has to do with the lineup being relaxed,” Cordes said. “We added some unnecessary pressure on to ourselves.”

Cal’s biggest obstacle on its path to the LSU Super Regional should be Michigan. The Wolverines cruised to a 20-2 finish in the Big 10 behind the .399 batting average of first baseman and catcher Caitlin Blanchard and the 1.81 ERA of Sara Driesenga. Undefeated at home, Michigan holds a sizeable advantage over the Bears and their 8-8 road record.

Last season, Cal hosted the regional and emerged as the winners. But this season, it doesn’t enter as the favorites but instead as the underdogs.

“There’s definitely somewhat of a different feel,” Cordes said. “Last year, it was more of an expectation (to win). We still expect to win, but we’ve gone through the struggle (this season).”

Despite the Bears having to battle several injuries this season, Cordes stressed the importance of ending the season on a positive and healthy note. After injuries to Henderson, utility player Victoria Jones and Cordes herself, the Bears are finally healthy again. And after going winless in a three-week span, the Bears finally defeated Washington last Saturday.

“We had never had a nine-game losing streak,” Cordes said. “For us to end on that winning note was a big deal. We even called it the start of our winning streak.”

Sean Wagner-McGough covers softball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @seanjwagner.