Rick Bertagnolli, California University’s veteran women’s softball coach, has won two NCAA Division II national championships, so he knows what an exceptional team looks like. He’s not ready to put his current edition of the Vulcans in that category despite its 11-0 start to the season.
Bertagnolli, however, also knows how hard it is for a team from the northeast to win its first 11 games, especially one that doesn’t have a senior on its roster and has played all of its games in the Carolinas.
That’s why Bertagnolli is ecstatic about Cal’s fast start.
“We’re 11-0 and loving every minute of it,” Bertagnolli said Tuesday morning. “I know starting 11-0 has never happened before for me in 30-some years of coaching. It’s sensational for the players. The amazing thing is they don’t realize what they’ve accomplished. I’ve tried to let them know how cherished this run to start a season is.”
Bertagnolli says he doesn’t know when Cal’s last 11-0 start was. The school’s athletics website has records for the softball program that date back only 10 years, so all anyone around campus knows is it’s been more than a decade since the Vulcans had enjoyed this kind of start – if it has happened at all.
California won back-to-back national championships in 1997 and ’98, but even those teams didn’t start 11-0. Heck, starting 1-0 was almost impossible.
“We had a ton of talent here during the 1990s and into the early 2000s. We had world-caliber talent,” Bertagnolli said. “I know we’d always start the season 0-1 because I would find team from down south that was national-championship contender and we’d open the season against them on the road. Our teams would come in thinking they were good, but I wanted to give them a starting point.”
Cal’s opponents in the first 11 games this season aren’t national powers, but winning 11 games in a row at any level is difficult. The young but consistent Vulcans have outscored their opponents 83-29 and quickly established an identity that Bertagnolli likes.
“We’re a grinder-type of team,” Bertagnolli says. “We have to work every inning, every pitch. We have no superstars. We bring our lunch pails to work each day, and so far they’re full of food. We’re definitely a working-class team.”
And everything has been working for Cal. The Vulcans have received instant impact from four freshmen in the starting lineup, including Lindsay Reicoff, a Chartiers Valley graduate. Reicoff leads Cal in almost all offensive categories, including batting average (.543). She also has a 2-0 record as a pitcher. Another freshman two-way player is Alex Sagl of Ontario who is batting .364 and has been dominant as a pitcher with a 5-0 record, 0.89 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 31 1/3 innings.
Junior pitcher Hope Spancake has a 4-0 record, and sophomore shortstop Breanna Morris of Waynesburg leads the Vulcans with 12 RBI, is batting .424 and has showed marked improvement over her freshman campaign.
“The biggest thing is the confidence factor for Breanna,” Bertagnolli said. “Coming out of high school and the summer ball, players think they understand the speed of the college game. But it’s magnified so much more than they’re used to. It takes some time to adjust.”
After playing each of the last three weekends, the Vulcans are in the midst of a 19-day layoff. Cal is idle until March 15 when it play West Virginia State in the Salem (Va.) Invitational.
Nobody knows how long Cal’s undefeated ride will continue when it finally gets back on the diamond. What is certain is that the future is bright for Cal softball and its seniorless team.
“This is the first time I’ve ever had a team without a senior,” Bertagnolli pointed out. “That means the leadership comes from everywhere. This team will play hard from start to finish, and have fun doing it.”
Sports editor Chris Dugan can be reached at email@example.com.