Editor’s Note: Over summer, the Daily Californian will be releasing its power rankings of Cal’s sports as decided by the Daily Cal sports staff. Stay tuned for No. 10 and No. 9 next week!
For a team that was a preseason favorite to land in the Women’s College World Series, making The Daily Californian’s list of the top-10 Cal sports teams as an honorable mention shouldn’t be an honor.
Make no mistake about it: “Honorable mention” signifies just how disappointing of a turn the season took this spring for the Cal softball team.
If you asked me back in February, I would have guaranteed that the Cal softball team would get more than just an honorable mention. And, to tell you the truth, a couple of weeks ago, I argued that they deserved to be in the top 10. After all, this was a team that went 38-19 overall despite losing one of the best pitchers in the country, Jolene Henderson, for an extended period. Heck, at one point, the Bears won 22 games in a row this season.
But the hard truth that I realized was that this was not a great team. With Henderson healthy, this was still a very good team. But without Henderson, the Bears were simply awful.
They couldn’t win a game.
Cal went 0-6 with Henderson riding the bench because of a torn ACL, ending the Pac-12 season on a 1-8 downward spiral. Cal’s flaws were exposed — a wound no longer protected by its dressing but instead out in the open and ready to be compromised.
Without Henderson on the mound, Cal’s offensive struggles came to the forefront. The Bears’ team batting average of .268 was the worst in the Pac-12. Sans Henderson, Cal was forced to score runs at a rate that it simply couldn’t win with.
Henderson also covered up the Bears defensive struggles. With her 267 strikeouts — second-best in the Pac-12 — the pressure to make defensive plays was off her teammates. Still, the Bears finished second-worst in the Pac-12 with 58 errors.
After getting swept by archrival Stanford May 3 through May 5, Cal coach Diane Ninemire admitted that she didn’t understand why her squad was playing so poorly.
“(Henderson’s injury) shouldn’t change our quality at-bats,” Ninemire said. “It shouldn’t change the way we throw a ball or field it. It’s a little disturbing to try and understand why the team is responding the way that it is.”
Some call it the Peyton Manning effect. In 2010, the Indianapolis Colts went 10-6 and advanced to the postseason. In 2011, with quarterback Peyton Manning absent with a neck injury, they went 2-14. Without Manning, the Colts went from one of the best teams in the league to the absolute worst.
Henderson’s injury didn’t doom the Bears. After all, they still made the postseason with Henderson pitching and were a couple of wins away from advancing to the Super Regional. They still ended the season ranked as the 22nd best team in the country.
But for two weeks, the Cal softball team looked as lost and as hapless as a team can look.
It’s difficult to anoint a team “great” when it relies almost entirely on one player. It’s even harder to put them in the top 10 of Cal sports when that team can’t win a game without its star player.
Just call it the Jolene Henderson effect.