Cal softball hoped to be UCLA’s toughest opponent this past weekend. COVID-19 proved tougher.
Eager to host the defending national champions for what would have been Levine-Fricke Field’s first taste of Pac-12 play since May 2019, the Bruins experienced COVID-19 complications that forced the cancellation of their series with the Bears.
While it has yet to be determined if the games against No. 2 UCLA will be rescheduled, an imminent series with No. 6 Washington offers Cal an opportunity to reroute its excitement and challenge another formidable conference opponent. The four-game series will start Thursday evening, followed by a doubleheader Friday and the finale Saturday.
The Huskies’ lineup features perhaps the most explosive 1-2 punch in the conference, if not the country. Leadoff batter Sis Bates reigns atop the Pac-12 in the hit department with 42 on the season. Two-spot Baylee Klingler has 37 hits of her own, in addition to an astonishing 1.421 on-base plus slugging and 30 RBIs. Bates and Klingler, as well as Washington’s Morganne Flores and Gabbie Plain, are on USA Softball’s 50-player watchlist for the 2021 Collegiate Player of the Year award.
In the circle, senior pitcher Plain has been Washington’s workhorse — and for good reason. Having started more than half the games for the Huskies thus far, Plain boasts a 0.91 ERA through 100 innings. To boot, the 6’0” Aussie threw a perfect game in Washington’s season opener and leads the NCAA with 178 strikeouts, 16 of which came against No. 9 Arizona on March 19.
The Bears will certainly have their work cut out for them, as the Huskies have established themselves as worthy of their rank. After cruising through nonconference play, Washington picked up a pair of wins against a strong Arizona squad. Last weekend, the Huskies were able to avenge two losses to No. 14 Arizona State with a 14-7 victory and then an 11-1 slaughter that ended via mercy rule, putting them at 24-4 overall on the season.
Cal dropped three of four at Oregon State earlier this month, but a respectable performance in Seattle will keep the Bears’ Pac-12 opponents in check.
The blue and gold have several bright spots of their own that they can capitalize on. True freshman Haylei Archer has been excellent on the mound thus far, as have fellow pitchers Chloe Romero and Sona Halajian. Archer played a pivotal role in both of the Bears’ wins last week, going the distance in Corvallis and dealing six and a third at Pacific.
At the plate, junior Makena Smith has anchored Cal’s offense as the only Bear to start every game. Smith, a member of USA Softball’s 50-player watchlist for the 2021 Collegiate Player of the Year award, leads the team in RBIs alongside Karlee Sparacino and has several games with multiple hits. She will look to continue her consistent play in Seattle.
From the season’s start, Cal head coach Chelsea Spencer’s top priority has been to keep COVID-19 from spreading around her program. Should both Cal and Washington successfully avoid such complications this week, the Bears will have a chance to prove that they can hang with Pac-12 powerhouses starting Thursday.