Full steam ahead: Bears travel to Fullerton for Judi Garman Classic

Karen Chow/Senior Staff

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Cal skipper Diane Ninemire is to the Bears’ softball program what legendary softball coach Judi Garman was to Cal State Fullerton. Both earned more than a thousand wins for their respective schools while earning winning percentages over .600. Ninemire’s 32 years at the Cal helm is almost double the service time that Garman accrued at Fullerton, but both won a single national championship.

As Ninemire and the Bears play at the Judi Garman Classic this week in Fullerton, there will be a nod of respect between one National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Famer and the legacy of another.

On Thursday, Cal will face the hosting Titans before taking on No. 4 LSU on Friday, BYU on Saturday and Grand Canyon University on Sunday.

The headliner is Friday’s showdown with the nation’s fourth-best team. Although LSU (13-1) is preceded in the rankings by reigning NCAA champions UCLA, Pac-12 contender Washington and the perennial powerhouse Texas, the Tigers have every reason to believe they are on the same wavelength as these teams. LSU is coming off a tournament during which its opposition frankly stood little chance; the Tigers won their first three games via the eight-run mercy rule, scoring an even 20 runs in one of their contests.

In their final game of that tournament, the Tigers turned a dominant weekend into a historic one. LSU pitcher Maribeth Gorsuch tossed the first seven-inning perfect game in program history, and it was perfection of the highest order. She threw first-pitch strikes to all 21 batters and sat down 16 on strikes, including a string of eight consecutive punchouts.

In short, the Bears’ bats will have to contend with a whole new beast on the mound. Cal’s third baseman Makena Smith currently leads the line with a stellar .460 batting average that ranks fifth in the Pac-12, but she and her teammates will certainly need a little extra something to solve Gorsuch and the rest of the LSU team.

“We’re going to come out swinging for sure because we got nothing to lose right now,” Smith said. “We play with a bit of a chip on our shoulder because nobody really thinks anything of us, so I think that’s a little dangerous for the other teams that we’re playing.”

Compared to its fellow Pac-12 compatriots, Cal is the only team to have not won the favor of the NCAA voting coaches — the other eight conference teams are all challenging for top-25 spots. No. 1 UCLA and No. 2 Washington are projected to make deep runs into the NCAA tournament, while No. 7 Arizona, No. 10 Oregon and No. 17 Arizona State are the remaining Pac-12 representatives in the upper echelon. Utah, Oregon State and Stanford all received votes but ultimately missed out in this week’s rankings.

That’s not to say the Bears haven’t shown flashes of promise. With its win against Auburn and close loss to No. 21 Missouri, Cal knows that it only takes a couple of key games to prove the rankings wrong.

On Thursday, Cal will be welcomed to Fullerton by the Titans. Fullerton (8-5) earned a spot in the NCAA tournament last year and scored an upset against No. 17 Arizona State at the Mary Nutter Classic last week. However, the Titans will be fresh off a game with No. 25 Texas Tech, a team they will play hours before they host the Bears. Fatigue management may be a factor, as Fullerton will play six total games over the weekend compared to Cal’s four.

After facing No. 4 LSU on Friday, Cal takes on BYU (9-5) on Saturday. The Cougars also qualified for last year’s NCAA tournament and have demonstrated their ability to keep things close against tough teams this year, coming out on the short end of two 3-1 score lines against No. 10 Oregon and No. 5 Oklahoma.

Finally, the Bears end their penultimate preseason tournament when they face Grand Canyon University (3-12) on Sunday. As their record shows, the Lopes have struggled mightily from the start of the season, going 1-5 and 1-3 in their two tournaments at their home stadium. A team-average ERA of 4.49 means that Cal may have some good looks at the plate to close out the tournament.

“I definitely feel prepared. We have our little kinks to work out but everybody knows what it takes to get where we want to be,” Smith said. “It’s going to be really exciting to see what the girls bring out.”

The first pitch against Fullerton will be at 5 p.m. Thursday.

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