Balanced Club Looks to Compete in Crowded Pac-10

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The Cal softball team seems to be picking up where it left off last season. Softball deemed the squad No. 12 and USA Today/NFCA named it No. 13 in the final poll of the 2010 campaign. The 2011 preseason polls see the Bears return to almost exactly where it finished.

Both of the nation's respected ranking authorities proclaim Cal at No. 12 in the country this year.

Once again, the Pac-10 emerged as one of the most dominant conferences in preseason polls, with six of the eight teams named in the top 25. Defending national champion UCLA took No. 2 to last year's runner-up Arizona, who currently sits at the top of the national preseason polls.

"We have a really strong, young team," said sophomore Jolene Henderson, who will headline the pitching rotation to start the season. All-American senior Valerie Arioto suffered a preseason injury. "Ranking doesn't matter and you can't tell how we are going to be based on the rankings. No one has seen us play yet."

The team lost six players - two starters in shortstop Taylor Kelly and second baseman Shannon Thomas - but coach Diane Ninemire found fresh talent in eight freshman additions to the ranks.

Given the vacancies in the infield, everyone seems to be on their toes to vie for a spot on the starting roster. The new faces on the squad are among those considered for the spots as well, including Britt Vonk, a member of the Netherland national team at the 2008 Olympics.

"As of right now, everything is up in the air," Henderson said. "Everyone is so strong, which makes (coach Ninemire's) decision hard, but that's a good thing."

Among the newcomers, four of them are lefties, increasing the total to seven lefties to the 11 righties on the team, a ratio that is expected to add a little spice to Ninemire's offensive strategy this season.

"It makes for a quicker lineup - getting on base and moving around," Henderson said. "Lefties get the players on and righties hit them in."

Ninemire returns to the helm of the program for her 24th season with the Bears.

As the winningest coach in Cal history, she enters the dugout this season with a career record of 1,014-498. Her milestone 1,000th career win came last season over Sacramento State, 6-0. This record-breaking achievement made Ninemire the ninth coach in the history of Division I softball to log 1,000 career wins.

She, along with the other coaches in the Pac-10 conference, combined predictions for the annual conference's preseason coaches' poll in January.

Should the stars align as forecasted, the Bears would tie with Washington for fourth in the Pac-10 at the end of the 2011 campaign.

The first step to getting there is the Arizona State Tournament in Tempe, Ariz., this weekend to kick off the new season.

"We are not starting off at our peak, but we are strong and moving forward together," Henderson said. "We can only get stronger."


Kelly Suckow covers softball. Contact her at [email protected]

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