Cal cannot solve No. 5 LSU as Bears drop 3 games in Fullerton

Karen Chow/Senior Staff

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1,355 wins. 12 trips to the College World Series. Cal’s first and only NCAA championship.

As of Tuesday, the Diane Ninemire era is over. After 32 years, Cal’s Hall of Fame softball coach stepped down from the program citing health reasons, casting a shadow over an already gloomy weekend.

With two weeks remaining before the start of Pac-12 play, Cal softball hit its first roadblock of the year in Fullerton. At the close of February, the Bears ended their first tournament with a losing record when they salvaged only one win out of four games at the Judi Garman Classic.

Granted, the Bears were not expected to have an easy weekend. Cal squared off with its second top-25 team of the year in No. 5 LSU along with NCAA tournament contenders BYU and Fullerton. These games were chances for the Bears to prove themselves as more than the underdogs of the Pac-12 — but they lost all three before ending the tournament with a win over a struggling Grand Canyon University team. It would be the final win of Ninemire’s career at Cal.

A win over the Tigers would have been a stunning result, but the Bears did what they could against heavily favored opposition on Saturday. Cal stayed within striking distance against a LSU side that had taken seven of their 16 wins via the eight-run mercy rule. A shaky start on the mound from the Bears’ Chloe Romero saw the Tigers pounce for four runs in the first inning, but she and Alexandra Perez would tame the LSU bats and yield only one run the rest of the way.

Unfortunately, one run was also all the Bears could muster. The LSU pitching that had stymied teams across the nation did not spare Cal — junior hurler Shelbi Sunseri allowed a sole run in the sixth during a complete-game effort as the Tigers cruised to a 5-1 victory.

The two other teams that qualified for the NCAA tournament last year, Fullerton and BYU, also proved to be tough nuts to crack.

A scrappy contest on Thursday against Fullerton kicked off with the Bears taking an early 2-0 lead after a Candace Yingling homer and a Lauren Espalin double. In the bottom of the fourth, the Titans took advantage of a Cal error to spark a three-run rally and snatch the lead. After adding an insurance run in the fifth, Fullerton stifled a seventh-inning comeback by the Bears to secure a 4-3 win at home.

On Saturday, the Bears found their footing and then quickly lost it against BYU. The Cougars struck for three in the first before Cal’s D’Asha Saiki blasted a three-run bomb to tie the game in the second. From then on, it was all BYU. Perez and Romero were tagged for a total of ten runs, five of which came in the sixth inning. Cal would go quietly and ultimately lost 10-3.

The Bears were able to avoid a winless tournament on Sunday as they took down Grand Canyon University 9-5. A first-inning opposite-field shot by Lauren Espalin gave Cal an early lead, and the Bears never trailed after scoring four in the second and three in the fourth. For the first time that weekend, the blue and gold were comfortable.

Despite the 1-3 showing, there were some definite bright spots. Junior Mikayla Coelho extended her hitting streak to 15 games while sophomore Makena Smith is currently on a 14-game run of her own. Both players will have an opportunity to extend those streaks next week.

If the Bears are going to be truly ready for conference play, they’ll need to demonstrate consistency on the mound and at the plate against postseason-caliber teams. Their last chance to do so will be this Friday at the JMU Dukes Invitational in Virginia. Cal will play a short three-game set against Siena College, James Madison and Connecticut. Of the three, only James Madison received top 25 votes.

Cal will have to forge forwards without the familiar presence of Ninemire in their dugout, and responsibility will fall on interim head coach Tammy Lohmann and clubhouse veterans to shoulder the team the rest of the way. The preseason finish line is in sight as the Bears travel to Virginia for their final tuneup this weekend — but with their Pac-12 rivals looming, the Bears’ race is just beginning.

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