Top-seeded Cal right at home

Cal's Jolene Henderson, shown in last year's World Series, shut out Washington on Saturday night. J.P. Wilson/Icon SMI

BERKELEY, Calif. -- The question, to hear it from Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour, is really quite simple.

"What team doesn't want to play at home?" Barbour asked.

The answer is a bit more complicated.

See, in the Cal softball program, going on the road for the NCAA tournament is just the way it has always been done. The Bears' home field in Strawberry Canyon, nestled in the hillside, up the hill from Memorial Stadium, down the hill from Lawrence Hall of Science, has simply not been adequate for postseason play. Not adequate seating, or adequate facilities, to stage an NCAA event.

Thus, Cal, which has appeared in 28 consecutive NCAA tournaments, has not hosted since 1993.

Every year, coach Diane Ninemire has taken her team on the road for long stretches to start the season to prepare them for what would happen at the end.

But not this year.

As a reward to the No. 1 Bears for a season that doesn't look close to being over, they opened their first-ever home super regional with an impressive 5-0 win against Pac-12 compatriot Washington on Saturday night, a game effectively won in the first inning when star Valerie Arioto and second baseman Jace Williams staked the Bears to a quick lead with deep homers to right center. Jolene Henderson pitched for the shutout victory.

The Cal band occupied the bleachers down the first-base line. Most of the 1,117 fans on hand were decked out in Cal gear and cheered heartily for the home team.

"We are not used to that," Ninemire said.

Cal, a remarkable 55-5 this season, takes on the Huskies again Sunday that could very well send the Bears to the World Series.

Coincidentally, it was the conference-opening series against these same Washington Huskies that got the proverbial ball rolling on giving Cal a home-field advantage in the postseason.

More than 400 fans were turned away from that series because there wasn't any room. Foti Mellis, associate athletic director, proposed erecting bleachers in the outfield to expand the capacity of the facility and accommodate the expanding fan interest in the No. 1 Bears. The bleachers increased capacity from 450 to nearly 1,200.

Barbour let the NCAA know in mid-April that Cal intended to serve as a host site.
The opening of the Simpson Center, Cal's new high-performance facility for athletics, in January allowed Cal to have use of locker rooms. FieldTurf installed on the adjacent rugby field made it possible to set up a tent village for media and officials and game-day operations. Temporary light standards were brought in. Phone lines and power were installed. A large temporary press box and camera stands were constructed to accommodate ESPN.

It all went up in three days after the end of the regular season. The regional round last weekend was sold out. Tickets to the super regional were gone by Thursday.

"It means a lot as seniors to play our last games at home," said Arioto. "Everyone that made it happen so quick, we appreciate it. We have always played away from home in the tournament and I think this is less pressure on us. "

Williams said she is happy not to have packed a suitcase for three weeks on the road.

"And playing under the lights here is really cool," Henderson said.

Ninemire was initially concerned, as any coach would be, about how this new development might impact her team. They were prepared to play away from home.

"But we couldn't ask for it to be any better," Ninemire said. "I stood out in the outfield today hitting fly balls and I thought about how awesome this is. It's a great legacy for our seniors to leave the younger players on this team, to show them that if they go out and perform, that people will come out and support you."

Now Ninemire wants a little more -- a new stadium.

"We have now what we should rightfully have, a chance to play at home, thanks to the hard work of a lot of people," Ninemire said. "But I think now we need to build something more permanent."