Cal softball readies itself for 2014 season without Jolene Henderson

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With only one out and two runners threatening in scoring position, Jolene Henderson induced a slow comebacker, inching one step closer to escaping a late-inning jam. Henderson fired a strike to first base to secure the out and gave the Cal softball team yet another chance to knot up a 1-0 ballgame. But the routine play came at a severe price — a torn ACL for Henderson.

The game was played nearly a year ago, but the result of the play would provide a glimpse into Cal’s 2014 season — a future without Henderson.

Henderson, now a Cal alum, is gone, no longer gracing Levine-Fricke Field. Meanwhile, the Bears are nearly set to take the diamond in 2014. But if head coach Diane Ninemire hopes to reach the postseason, her squad will need to figure out a way to do what it could not last season — win without Henderson, the winningest pitcher in program history.

The Bears went 0-6 with their ace hobbled on the bench, their pitching rotation bombarded by Pac-12 sluggers and their offense unable to keep pace. After slumping into the postseason, Cal’s 38-19 season ended in the NCAA Regional.

“Nobody was expecting (Henderson) to get hurt,” said shortstop Cheyenne Cordes. “We just expected that she was just going to be there all the time. It was a shock because our pitching staff was young last year with the exception of (Henderson). And it was like, you wait and wait for those opportunities, and then it’s right in front of you, and it’s overwhelming.”

Add in the loss of catcher Lindsey Ziegenhirt, who led the team in home runs during her senior season, and the 2014 Cal team is lacking its MVP and one of its middle-of-the-lineup bruisers. With the departure of Henderson and Ziegenhirt, Cal sits at No. 24 in the most recent preseason poll, while just one year ago, the team entered the season ranked No. 3 in the nation.

For the Bears to compete in the power conference that is the Pac-12, they will lean on sophomore pitcher Nisa Ontiveros. Last year, in just more than 54 innings thrown, the then-freshman struggled, accumulating a 6.06 ERA.

“I’ve been working on improving my movement, hitting my spots and just becoming comfortable with my pitches,” Ontiveros said. “It’s going to take the whole pitching staff, to be honest.”

Offensively, Cal’s sights are set on improving its .268 team batting average in 2013 — worst in the Pac-12 — and its .362 on-base percentage. Cordes, who finished her sophomore campaign with a .315 batting average and led the team in hits, runs and doubles, figures to be central in the Bears’ offensive plans.

Cordes won’t be alone in generating runs. Utility player Victoria Jones compiled a .542 slugging percentage last season and with her catching experience, might be asked to fill in for Ziegenhirt. And Henderson’s sister, Danielle Henderson, might help shoulder the load of losing the team’s best power hitter. Last season, the third baseman managed 11 home runs, tied with Jones for the second-most dingers on the team.

“Because it’s a sport of failure, you go up and down and up and down,” Cordes said. “We just want to find that nice easy consistency.”

Whether or not Cal can usher in the post-Henderson era with success will be evident Feb. 7 to 9, when the team treks to Tempe, Ariz., for its first tournament of the season. While Cal may manage to get by against its nonconference opposition, the arduous teams that compose the Pac-12 will be the Bears’ first real test. Currently, five top-25 teams — Arizona State, Oregon, UCLA and Stanford — are all projected to finish above Cal in the conference.

Sean Wagner-McGough is the Sports Editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @seanjwagner.