Cal softball opens season with ASU Kajikawa Classic

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In its first tournament of the year, the Cal softball team will head straight into the territory of a Pac-12 powerhouse. But the Bears won’t face No. 7 Arizona State just yet. Instead, this weekend’s trip to Tempe, Ariz., will kick off the preseason with four nonconference matchups.

The annual ASU Kajikawa Classic begins Friday and ends Sunday at Farrington Stadium, where Cal will face New Mexico, Creighton, Bradley and Portland State as it looks to start the year on the right note.

“Every game is important for us,” said coach Diane Ninemire. “It’s important for us to get better each and every day that we play, but it’s also important that we win every nonconference game that we can and give ourselves a good position going into the Pac-12 so that we can qualify for the postseason.”

Last year, the Bears dominated at the beginning of the season, earning a 22-game winning streak. That cushion was arguably what allowed Cal to survive a 10-14 Pac-12 record and finish the year in postseason play. If the Bears are going to replicate or exceed those results, they will need to have another strong start.

Cal begins this season ranked No. 24 in the country but sits behind five other Pac-12 teams in the top 25. With an unforgiving conference schedule and the loss of Jolene Henderson — Cal’s winningest pitcher in history — the going won’t be easy come conference play.

“The biggest story this year, for this team, is if our young pitching staff can answer the questions that we have when we play great competition — if they can get better and grow with each and every game,” Ninemire said. “I think that is probably the biggest question going into the season.”

That young pitching staff features Nisa Onitveros and Katie Sutherland-Finch, who both figure to earn some playing time this weekend. Onitveros struggled in her first year with the Bears, accumulating a 6.06 ERA, but showed promise during last year’s Kajikawa Classic in her first career game against Cal State Northridge. Meanwhile, Sutherland-Finch comes in as a high-school All-American recruit, recording a 26-2 record her senior season.

Offensively, the Bears welcome back an experienced squad. Junior shortstop Cheyenne Cordes finished her sophomore season with a .315 batting average and led the team in hits, runs and doubles. Utility player Victoria Jones and third baseman Danielle Henderson also figure to have an impact with .552 and .542 slugging percentages, respectively.

This core of experience will be key in replacing the leadership that was essential to last year’s success.

“We’ve had a couple people step up and — I wouldn’t really say ‘replace’ (Henderson’s) leadership but really try to incorporate what they’ve learned from their previous years and start their own way of leading the team in any way that they can,” said first baseman Jordan Wallace.

Dani Coony covers softball. Contact her at [email protected].