Cal softball to build on young talent

Karen Chow/Senior Staff

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In our world, there are sounds that just sound good — the crunch of a crisp apple, the crackle of a warm campfire or the purr of a car engine ready to go. Scientists might say that the exact pattern of sound waves through the air plays a factor — really though, who knows?

But we don’t need to examine the physics to say that the contact between bat and ball is one of the most exquisite sounds in sports. As spring arrives, fans will hear that those musical notes emanating from Strawberry Canyon when Cal softball returns to the field.

The Bears are coming off of a season where they went 28-27 overall but struggled in conference play, going just 5-18 against the rest of the Pac-12. This year, the conference is again stacked with opposition of the highest pedigree.

The 2019 College World Series champions UCLA are out to repeat their title, but the Bruins fell to third in the Softball America rankings and to second in the Pac-12 coaches’ poll after graduating six seniors last year. Meanwhile, behind the glove wizardry of shortstop Sis Bates and the power arm of Gabbie Plain, Washington is projected to win it all. The Huskies took second or third in the last three editions of the College World Series — but this time around, they occupy the top spot in the Softball America rankings and are tabbed by the Pac-12 coaches to be the best in the conference.

In short, Cal needs to work very hard to keep up. This year’s iteration of the Bears added 10 true freshmen and one transfer, who will join forces with 10 returning players to round out the 21-player roster.

After three of their four pitchers graduated last year, Cal found reinforcements on the mound with the addition of freshmen Sona Halajian and Maggie Joseph. Junior Chloe Romero transferred to Cal from Texas this offseason and will also see her share of innings, while the only true returner from last year’s squad is sophomore Alexandra Perez.

At the plate, sophomore catcher Makena Smith is coming off of a stellar debut season that saw her start all 55 games, tallying a .315 batting average with five homers and earning Pac-12 All-Freshman honors.

Cal head coach Diane Ninemire is entering her 33rd season at the helm, and the experience of the National Fastpitch Coaches’ Association Hall of Fame member will be essential to the development of the Bears’ young talent. Ninemire holds the university record for victories in any sport — she stands at 1,345 wins and counting for Cal softball and has earned 30 NCAA tournament berths along the way. If anyone can guide the Bears through this rebuild, it’s her — and the first tournament of the year should serve as a chance to see Ninemire’s Cal lineup take shape.

The Bears start their year off down in the Sunshine State — Cal will be in Miami for the Felsberg Invitational hosted by Florida International later this week. The Bears will take on FIU on Feb. 6, followed by a double-header with Syracuse and Penn State on Feb. 7. They’ll finish the weekend with a Saturday matchup with Michigan State and a rematch with Penn State on Sunday.

Cal’s first home game is more than a month away on March 13, but preparations are already fully underway. Ninemire and company will be tasked with spoiling the dreams of the Bears’ Pac-12 rivals while constructing a young core that can stand the test of a brutal conference. If Cal can deploy its pieces right, the outcome will be just like the sound of a ball striking a barrel — so, so sweet.

Chanun Ong covers softball. Contact him at [email protected].