No. 6 California
Last season's record: 58-7
Key returnees: Cheyenne Cordes, Danielle Henderson, Jolene Henderson, Breana Kostreba, Britt Vonk, Lindsey Ziegenhirt.
Key departures: Valerie Arioto, Frani Echavarria, Elia Reid, Jamia Reid, Jace Williams.
Tournament finish: Lost in Women's College World Series (2-2).
1. Replacing the irreplaceable
No player in college softball will be more difficult to replace than Valerie Arioto. Just ask USA Softball, which named the former All-American its female athlete of the year for her play at Cal and with the national team in 2012.
It's a two-pronged loss in the case of someone who was one of the nation's best hitters (1.538 OPS and 23 home runs) and one of the best No. 2 pitchers (20-3, 1.32 ERA and 155 strikeouts). Focusing on the first of those issues, Cal needs to maintain its power. The Golden Bears reached the World Series in 2011 without an injured Arioto and with a modest offense, scoring 286 runs and slugging .401, but it was the power that produced 422 runs and a .512 slugging percentage last season that pushed them to the No. 1 ranking. Making it all the more difficult, they also need to replace Jamia Reid (51 stolen bases), Frani Echavarria (.566 slugging percentage) and Jace Williams (.858 OPS).
Is that realistic? It might be. As freshmen, Danielle Henderson, Breana Kostreba and Cheyenne Cordes combined to hit 36 home runs, two more than the entire team hit the season before they arrived. But those three also struck out 136 times. If they fine-tune their approaches at the plate, as might be expected with some experience, it's a good blueprint for sharing the burden of replacing a hitter who was one of a kind.
2. The ace up the sleeve
Jolene Henderson is one of the best pitchers in the country, a fact that by itself makes her of great value to the Golden Bears this season as they reshape the offense. As a junior, she went 38-4 with a 1.29 ERA and 332 strikeouts in 282.1 innings and has established herself as one of the five or six pitchers who could single-handedly will a team to Oklahoma City. She may also be one reason Cal doesn't ultimately have to depend solely on her arm. This is her team to lead, and there aren't many people her age whose mentality and personality make them so easy to follow. Four years in, the only thing Henderson doesn't share with most pitching aces is an ego.
"It's natural for our kids to look to Jolene for support, and she's so encouraging to her teammates, making them be able to shake off mistakes," Cal coach Diane Ninemire said. "She's so positive. I always call her the eternal optimist because she's always looking for the good in everything. No matter how big of a problem it is or what adversity may come, she's always positive there is going to be a way through."
3. Replacing Arioto, Part II
Henderson is a unique personality, but she is just as prone to fatigue and wear and tear as anyone else. Cal's freshman class needs to play a role for this team to make another trip to Oklahoma City, and that begins with pitcher Nisa Ontiveros keeping the ace fresh for the postseason. The niece of former major league pitcher Steve Ontiveros is expected to step in as Henderson's main understudy. Ninemire described her as a pitcher who works low in the zone and is likely to rely more on her infielders than strikeouts, which brings us to ...
4. Middle infield goes Dutch (again)
A native of the Netherlands, Britt Vonk remained an important offensive asset in her second college season, with a .342 batting average and 13 stolen bases. But after showing good range and a big arm at shortstop as a freshman, she was largely confined to the designated player role as a sophomore following offseason shoulder surgery. More than a year removed from that procedure, she is ready to play the field. The catch is Cordes committed just seven errors in 65 games at shortstop as a freshman.
"She had an awesome year," Ninemire said of Cordes. "She probably had the fewest errors of any shortstop in many years that we've had at Cal, and that's such a critical position to play. I thought she did an outstanding job for a young freshman coming in and handling that position, being surrounded by a lot of upperclassmen around her."
It remains to be seen who will play shortstop and who will play second, but the combination could be second-to-none defensively.
5. Reloading the outfield
As many as six players are competing for starting spots in an outfield that needs at least two new starters. Three freshmen are in the mix, with Jasmin Mejia a potential starter in center field, Khala Taylor a speedy option who might replace some of Jamia Reid's production on the bases and Vanessa Alvarez a decorated pitching-hitting star who followed Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts in that role at San Jose's Archbishop Mitty High School. They'll compete with Kostreba and Ashley Decker for at-bats.