Back from brief hibernation: Cal to face Arizona

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After hunkering down in December, black bears typically come out of hibernation at some time between mid-March and mid-April. Following an unusually warm winter, grizzly bears may return to the scene as early as January or February. But for softball-playing Bears, the lingering risk of COVID-19 has made their hibernation timetable quite capricious.

Though Cal softball’s hibernation appeared to end for good upon this spring’s arrival, COVID-19 developments within the program sent the Bears back to their dens earlier this month. Since their 6-4 victory over Utah for the series win at Levine-Fricke Field on April 11, four-game matchups against Stanford, scheduled for April 16-18, and Arizona State, scheduled for last Friday and Saturday, were canceled. A nonconference contest against San Jose State set for last Wednesday also went unplayed.

Head coach Chelsea Spencer, whose top priority for the season was to play as many games as possible, lamented the negative consequences of the game cancellations for the players.

“COVID has been hard for a lot of programs,” Spencer said. “Keeping the momentum from Utah, and then going two-weeks-no-contests, has been tough for the student-athletes, but it’s all about adapting and adjusting.”

Cal was scheduled to be back on the dirt this Wednesday to host Santa Clara, but COVID-19 developments within the Bears’ program led to yet another game cancellation. Cal’s road trip to face No. 10 Arizona in a four-game series this Friday through Sunday has not been canceled.

Assuming the Bears and the Wildcats are allowed to play this weekend, Cal could be in for a tough series. With an offense led by standout freshman Janelle Meoño and power-hitting national team member Dejah Mulipola, 19 of Arizona’s 31 wins on the season have come by margins of eight runs or more. On the mound, the Wildcats boasts a fierce trio of starters in Hanah Bowen, Alyssa Denham and Mariah Lopez, who have a combined ERA of just 2.04.

“It’s always about how you pitch and how you play defense, to beat powerhouses like Arizona,” Spencer said. “They’re a top-15 program right now, so we’ve got to capitalize on their mistakes and capitalize on the good pitches.”

The last game in which the two sides met was an emotional one. In a series that concluded the blue and gold’s home docket for 2019 and marked the program’s last home game for nearly two years, Cal’s Kamalani Dung pitched a two-hit, seven-strikeout complete-game shutout against, arguably, the country’s most feared offense at the time. The feat ended a 21-game win streak for the Wildcats, yet marked just victory number four in conference play for the Bears.

The win was the silver lining in what was ultimately a very disappointing season. Losses to Arizona on Friday and Sunday of that series virtually eliminated Cal from playoff contention for the first time in five seasons.

Now, at the reins of head coach Spencer, after former head coach Diane Ninemire’s 32-year tenure came to a close last spring for health-related reasons, Cal softball is eager to upset Arizona once again this weekend as playoff selections draw near. With several games remaining against powerhouse teams, the Bears still have a chance to earn an at-large bid to the Women’s College World Series.

“Hopefully, we’re in one of the top 54 teams that the committee fields. It is going to depend largely on what we are able to do against Arizona. We’re going to try and pick up the (previously canceled) Stanford games too,” Spencer said. “Then, hopefully, finish strong with Oregon and give them our case.”

This weekend’s series against the Wildcats is set to start Friday at Arizona’s Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium, followed by two games Saturday and the finale Sunday.

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