Road to 1,000: The 2002 National Championship
April 26, 2010
BERKELEY - One of the most important aspects of California softball head coach Diane Ninemire's preparations for the 2002 Women's College World Series did not involve softball. It was not a rigorous defensive drill, batting practice or even throwing. It was a team trip to the WCWS logo in center field.
It was there that Ninemire, who had just guided the Golden Bears to their fourth straight trip to the hallowed grounds of Oklahoma City, read to the Bears. She did not draw upon famous quotes or a story of Cal yore. Instead, in her hands, she had a story published in the local Oklahoma newspaper.
Veteran Arizona head coach Mike Candrea gave an interview to the paper in which he stated that no one could overlook the Bears. He noted that the 2002 squad was a scrappy group with good power and could overtake anyone. It was that quote and article that Ninemire distinctly remembers reading to her team prior to the opening day of the WCWS.
'I really challenged the team when we got to the World Series that week,' Ninemire said. 'I lined them up on the logo and read them that. I told them that their dream of winning the national title could come true, but that we all had to believe that we were the best team that week.'
Cal: 3, WCWS Opponents: 0
The Bears opened the week in high fashion with senior pitcher Jocelyn Forest striking out 14 Sooner batters to lift Cal to a 4-2 victory over Oklahoma in the opening round of the WCWS, marking the fourth time the Bears had won the first-round game in its seventh World Series appearance.
Cal continued to stay hot in its next game, defeating No. 8 Florida State, 1-0, on freshman Chelsea Spencer's solo blast. The win was Cal's ninth consecutive, allowed the Bears to tie the school record for wins in a year (54) and was the first time that the Bears have won the first two games of a WCWS.
Following the win over Florida State, Cal beat Arizona State, 3-0, to tread on ground that no other Golden Bear softball team in school history had been able to cover by advancing to their first-ever national championship game. It was also Cal's 55th win of the season, the most ever in the program's 31-year existence.
Against the Sun Devils, the Bears scored all three runs on one play in the bottom of the first inning. With two outs, runners ran on contact as freshman Jessica Pamanian's dribbler to third was bare-handed by ASU's Phelan Wright, who side-armed the throw off the mark to first. Freshman Kaleo Eldredge and junior Kristen Morley came in easily as right fielder Kristen Farber tried to field the ball off the fence along the first base line. Junior Jen Deering, who was pinch running for junior Veronica Nelson, crossed the plate when Farber attempted to throw out Pamanian at second.
Senior pitcher Jocelyn Forest, who had pitched every game in the 2002 NCAA Tournament, threw her sixth one-hitter of the season and her 12th shutout of the year. In seven innings, she struck out four batters and walked none for her 34th complete game in 2002.
'It was just an unbelievable event when we started knocking off all these teams,' Ninemire said. 'Then we got to the game when we played Arizona State, and the third baseman threw the ball out in right field and we rolled on. We were just on a roll - another win, another win, another win.'
The defeat of ASU pushed Cal into the WCWS title game against Pac-10 foe Arizona. Previously that season, the Bears took two of three from the Wildcats, winning two in Berkeley, while dropping one game in Tucson.
Where No Bears Had Gone Before - the Title Game
The championship day held special significance for more than one reason.
It was the first time that the Bears had been in the title game.
No other Cal women's team had ever won a NCAA national championship.
'That championship game that day, it was like a magical moment in a mind,' Ninemire. 'It was a day that we only dreamed of being at because we've been at the World Series a number of other times, but never got to the final day.'
The game was a pitching dual between Cal's Forest and Zona's Jennie Finch, two of the best hurlers in the nation. Forest had a younger team behind her, notably less experienced and freshmen-laden compared to the defending national champion Wildcats. Additionally, Candrea and his 'Cats had already won six NCAA Championships in program history and had been to the title game 10 times. It was truly a David and Goliath situation.
Finch (34-6), the player of the year in 2001 when she went 32-0 and Arizona won the title, retired the first two batters in the seventh before Eldredge walked. Morley followed with a single, then Harper singled up the middle to make it 1-0.
'I'll never forget that seventh inning,' Ninemire noted. 'Our freshman, Kaleo, dove into home to get the first run. At that point, you're thinking, as a coach, `Well, we're glad we got one run and hopefully we'll be able to hold on and Jocelyn will do really well on the mound.' But it just opened up the flood gates. It was like my team just believed that the moment was going to happen and it was our time. We scored many more runs after that.'
After an intentional walk to Nelson loaded the bases, Finch walked in the second run before giving up a bases-clearing double to Pamanian that made it 5-0. Finch was replaced by Jenny Gladding, who gave up a double to Spencer that finished the scoring.
'Jennie Finch was the reason why we got here and we rode her, and I think she just ran out of a little bit of gas,' Candrea said following the game. 'It was Cal's day.'
With a 5-0 lead in the bottom of the seventh, the Bears took the field on defense, just three outs away from the first title in program history. In the bottom end of the seventh, Forest could not have had a better inning for she struck out the side on a team that had been the No. 1 squad in the country to sign, seal and deliver the national championship.
'So, to me, there will be never a game that will mean more to this program as far as where we have always dreamed of wanting to be,' Ninemire said. 'Throughout the years, I've had so many special games with so many special players, but that one, I guess, would take the cake.'
A Season to Remember
It took nine freshmen, one transfer, six juniors and two seniors to lead Cal to a school record 56-19 overall mark and the first NCAA women's title in school history. Those 56 wins set a then-program record for wins in a season, and that mark still stands as of 2009.
For the first time in school history, Cal wrapped up its storybook season with the No. 1-ranking in the USA Today/NFCA Coach's Poll, which was the first time the Bears finished atop the final poll.
The softball team held the only Cal women's NCAA title until 2009, when the Cal women's swimming and diving won the NCAA Championships. With their 33-11 overall record heading into this weekend, the Bears seemed poised for yet another run into the postseason.