Cal softball returns for opening weekend featuring Sacramento State, Saint Mary’s

Photo of Cal Women's softball
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The year is 2005. YouTube was born, Carrie Underwood won the fourth season of “American Idol” and iPod Nanos were all the rage. Tucked away in Strawberry Canyon, former shortstop Chelsea Spencer was finishing up her senior year campaign for the Bears, having helped the team to a Women’s College World Series championship and two runner-up finishes in seasons prior.

After years of playing professional softball and coaching stints at Michigan State, Oregon and Texas, Spencer has returned as a head coach at what she still believes is the most beautiful place to play in the country: Levine-Fricke Field.

Though it’s been years since Spencer laced up on Cal’s home dirt, the Bears themselves haven’t seen action since a 4-1 loss to Arizona on April 28, 2019 — a loss that eventually put playoff contention out of reach for the Bears for the first time in five seasons. A facility renovation later and amid a pandemic, softball returns to Berkeley this Sunday when Cal hosts Saint Mary’s.

But first, Cal softball will kick off its season Saturday with a road contest at Sacramento State.

While the Hornets and the Bears boasted similar records in the abbreviated 2020 season, Sacramento State enters Saturday’s matchup returning starters at every field position and with a handful of games already under its belt. As a co-host of the NorCal Kickoff last weekend, Sacramento State went 2-3, including doubleheader splits against California Baptist and Saint Mary’s before losing its final game to Nevada 10-0.

Though it’ll be Cal’s first game in almost a year, it also fields a team full of returning talent. Junior catcher Makena Smith, who boasted a 19-game hit streak and .481 batting average when the season came to a halt last spring, will look to pick up right where she left off alongside the promising bats of Sophie Medellin, Nicole Hammoude and Kacey Zobac. In the pitcher’s circle, the duo of workhorses Alexandra Perez and Chloe Romero should see plenty of innings after serving as the Bears’ sole starters in 2020. They will be complemented by Sona Halajian and Haylei Archer.

Unlike the predictability of Sacramento State’s lineup come Saturday, however, Spencer plans to experiment with a mix of players at different positions in an effort to get as many people minutes as possible.

“It’s tough when you get the same nine playing — that makes for a lot of unhappy people, and I don’t want unhappy people. … I think happy cows produce good milk, you know?” Spencer said. “(The coaching staff wants) to pass the bat to other athletes and give them a chance to show us what they’ve got.”

Spencer will likely continue to explore different lineups Sunday against Saint Mary’s, a team Cal beat three times last February. In their collection of wins, the Bears outscored the Gaels 19-6, including a 9-0 stomping in which Romero held Saint Mary’s to a single hit.

Like Sacramento State, Saint Mary’s also competed in the NorCal Kickoff to open its season, and it finished the weekend sporting a 2-2 record. The stretch included notable performances from Bay Area local Indya Smith. The sophomore outfielder batted .385 in the four games, including a 2-for-3 outing against Nevada and a 3-4 showing against the Hornets that saw her knock in a home run and two RBIs.

If Cal can neutralize Smith and All-West Coast Conference preseason team selections Alex Casas and Maddie Gallagher, Spencer’s first taste of action in the revitalized Levine-Fricke Field should result in victory.

However, Spencer’s top priority for the team this weekend, and every weekend, is simply staying able to play — a relevant goal given the fact that both Saturday and Sunday’s contests were originally scheduled to be doubleheaders. Both have since been reduced to single-game matchups, as COVID-19 complications within the program have affected the Bears’ ability to field complete rosters.

“We just have to dodge COVID and get games in and play to the best of our ability. Soon we’ll see what our athletes can bring to the table, and I’m excited to see what we’ve got,” Spencer said.

While TikTok may be the new YouTube and iPods have appeared to slowly grow obsolete, not all has changed since 2005. Tom Brady still won the year’s Super Bowl, and “American Idol” is still finding time on the air. As for Cal softball, Chelsea Spencer can still be found at Levine-Fricke Field, which to her, “feels like home.”

Allie Coyne covers softball. Contact her at [email protected].