Behind catcher, Cal softball's postseason lives on
Posted: Friday May 27, 2005 2:31PM; Updated: Friday May 27, 2005 2:31PM
Cal catcher Haley Woods was second in the Pac-10 this season with 57 RBIs.
Michael Pimentel/Cal Athletics
The riseball headed toward Haley Woods' forehead -- an impossibly deceptive pitch in an uncomfortably desperate moment -- and as the junior catcher made the split-second decision to round on it, almost everyone associated with Cal softball knew the end was near. Surely this, the 10th consecutive pitch on which the Golden Bears were a strike away from elimination, would be the one to seal their fate.
Was it really going to end like this? Could it be that Cal, the second-seeded team in the NCAA softball tournament -- a loaded, senior-driven squad that, in the wake of a runner-up finish in last year's Women's College World Series, had earned its first preseason No. 1 ranking -- was going to be bounced from the postseason after losing its first two games at the Fresno State regional?
From my vantage point on May 20, just behind the first-base dugout at FSU's Bulldog Diamond, it sure looked that way. The Bears trailed Long Beach State by a 3-2 score with two outs in the seventh inning and runners on first and second, and Woods had battled back from a 1-2 hole to force a full count.
This was the 13th pitch of the at-bat, and she seemed merely to be postponing the inevitable. Cal had been struggling offensively for more than six weeks, and Woods, the team's biggest and most powerful hitter, stood as its most obvious symbol of futility. Smoking hot in the season's first half, she hadn't produced a big hit in forever. In this game she was 0-for-3, having been whiffed twice by Long Beach State standout senior pitcher Meredith Cervenka on eye-high riseballs nearly identical to the one she was about to swing at.
Standing in the third-base coaching box, Cal coach Diane Ninemire had a far less fatalistic attitude. The winningest coach of any sport in school history -- she's 805-381 in 18 years -- Ninemire is an unfailingly pleasant lady whose amiability disguises her inner fire. Several hours earlier, while dining at a Chevy's with a group of Cal officials and staff members, she had been convinced that her team, despite its stunning 3-1 defeat to BYU the previous night, would snap out of its funk and advance to the Super Regionals by winning four consecutive games over two days.
"We are a long way from done," Ninemire assured me as she poked at her chicken fajitas. "A bear is about to be awakened."
Ever the hopeful Cal devotee, I probed her for a past performance that proved this was possible. Certainly, one must have existed given the penchant for drama her teams always have seemed to display. I was finishing college when Ninemire, then a young assistant, took over the program, and back then I'd used my bully pulpit as the Daily Californian sports editor to make fun of her publicity-seeking team on more than one occasion. But the softball Bears grew on me, and over the years I began to follow their postseason results and marvel at their ability to come through in the clutch. So many times Cal seemed to have a rough draw or found itself in a grim position, and more often than not the Bears would come through.
Finally, in 2002, Ninemire's team won it all, breaking a scoreless tie with Arizona by unloading on the great Jennie Finch in the top of the seventh. Second-place finishes to UCLA in each of the next two years validated the Bears as a program that joined the Bruins and Wildcats as college softball's behemoths.