Opposites key Cal's success

After nearly a decade and a half of sharing van rides, airport lines, rain delays, shifting strike zones, a whole mess of wins and the occasional loss, University of California seniors Jolene Henderson and Lindsey Ziegenhirt probably understand each other about as well as it's possible for a pitcher and a catcher to understand each other.

Short of breathing, blinking and similar obligations, it is conceivable neither has done anything more often than throw the ball to the other, hundreds of thousands of pitches across their time as teammates in youth leagues, travel ball, high school and college. Each complements the other perfectly at 43 feet, the distance from Henderson's place on the pitching rubber to Ziegenhirt's position behind the plate.

The distinctly smaller dimensions of a college dorm, on the other hand, proved no easier to navigate as freshman roommates than for generations of students thrown together as strangers. It turns out every wavelength has its limits.

"I would have Popsicles, and I would eat them in the shower and I'd leave the sticks in there," Henderson recalled. "So she wasn't a big fan of that."

The roommate experiment lasted just that one year. The friendship, thankfully, survived the great Popsicle stick schism, not to mention the clothes on the floor conundrum and other points of philosophical divergence.

They are always on the same page when the batter steps in and the umpire settles into a crouch. It doesn't mean they have to read the same book the rest of the time.

It's no secret Cal is what it is because the pitcher with more wins than any other for one of the sport's most historically significant programs is exactly the kind of free spirit who eats Popsicles wherever the mood strikes her, jumps hand in hand with teammates over the foul line at the start of an inning, knows every parent by first name and generally grins her way through the world. She is one of a select few as a pitching ace. She is one of a kind as a talisman.

The knee injury that sidelined her late in the Pac-12 season is the reason California begins the postseason as an unseeded team in the Ann Arbor Regional. Her return last week is why No. 8 Michigan can't be thrilled about the visit.

"It's natural for our kids to look to Jolene for support," Cal coach Diane Ninemire said of one of her senior co-captains. "She's so encouraging to them, making them able to shake off mistakes. And she's so positive -- I always call her the eternal optimist because she's always looking for the good in everything."

But Cal also is what it is because its other senior co-captain, the catcher who doubles as its leading slugger this season with 16 home runs, is the kind of person who talks enthusiastically about going into school administration and becoming a principal and who might not relish the residue of frozen shower treats.

"It's like the good cop, bad cop," Henderson said. "Lindsey's the mom of the team. She makes sure everyone knows what uniforms we're wearing. She always makes sure we stay in line. … She is just a very big constant. You can look at her, and she doesn't freak out with the pressure. She's always calm and ready to go."

They were 7 years old and playing recreational league softball for Ziegenhirt's mom when they first crossed paths. Ziegenhirt was already a player. Henderson was more the kid picking daisies in the outfield than a future All-American.

"She was just a very fun and eclectic rebel child, almost," Ziegenhirt said. "She just wanted to be out there and have fun."

They played on the same travel ball teams and the same high school team. Henderson remained that eternal optimist. Ziegenhirt made sure the teams didn't cut their sprints short. Still, as different as their personalities were, it was back then, just as the college recruiting process kicked into gear, they first talked about going to the same school. Henderson committed first. Ziegenhirt kept other schools on her short list but ultimately followed suit.

Neither wasted any time before living up to recruiting accolades. Henderson won 20 games as a freshman. Ziegenhirt was one of just two players to start every game and finished second in home runs and RBIs.

It was there their stories diverged.

Henderson built on her freshman success to become one of the winningest pitchers in college softball history, the ace of two Women's College World Series teams who came back from this season's injury for a chance to make it three trips to Oklahoma City. Ziegenhirt's offensive numbers tailed off dramatically as a sophomore, but she still started almost every game behind the plate in a season in which Henderson went 40-10 with a 0.99 ERA. She held on for 32 starts as a junior, but she hit just .156 with two home runs. Ziegenhirt played once in the postseason run to the World Series, coincidentally but unfortunately a loss against Arkansas in regional play that temporarily stunned the tournament.

"I wasn't satisfied; I was disappointed in myself," Ziegenhirt said of the season. "I knew I could do much better, perform much better than how I was performing. But in the end, I helped my team in the way that they needed me to that year. I was everybody's biggest supporter and cheered loud on the bench and came in when coach called me in. I was the [type to] lead by example and don't get frustrated and accept your role but don't be satisfied with it."

Her fading fortunes notwithstanding, Ziegenhirt's talent and history earned her an invitation to try out for the national team barely a week after her college team exited the World Series. She didn't make the final cut for the team that went on to play in the world championship, but she said those few days changed the senior season that followed. There wasn't time to tweak her swing or change her workouts. The only thing she could do was try to have fun again.

Cal needed "Momma Zieg," as her teammates call her with perhaps equal parts respect and mocking affection. With just two seniors and minus Valerie Arioto, Frani Echavarria, Elia and Jamia Reid, and Jace Williams from last season's team, they needed that leadership. Minus those players, they also needed her bat. They got both.

"I think that she has grown, and between this year and last year, I'm beyond proud of where she's at right now," Henderson said. "I know where I want this season to end, but regardless of where it ends, I think everything that she's done here at Cal speaks such volumes about her. She came in her freshman year and she did really well, and she's had some ups and downs like everyone does in a college career. But the way she's been able to bounce back, and the way that she is playing right now, not only physically but mentally, she is so much stronger than a lot [of] girls I see."

And Ziegenhirt still understands the ace in the circle as well as anyone, perhaps including Cal third baseman Danielle Henderson, who doubles as Jolene's younger sister. Rare among catchers these days, especially among the increasingly micromanaged upper echelon of the college game, Ziegenhirt is in complete control behind the plate. She has called pitches since before pitcher and catcher got to college. To this day, Jolene swears the most ticked off she ever gets on a softball field is when someone gets a hit off her after she shakes off her catcher. Then again, by her count it has happened only two or three times.

"She'll come out and talk to me about nothing to do with softball, usually," Jolene said. "Or she's like 'You got this.' She just knows little cues to make sure I know I have everything under control. Lindsey's good at that."

There's a world of understanding in those 43 feet.

"We both knew that, when it came down to it, on the field is where it really mattered," Ziegenhirt said. "And on the field was where we got things done."