Ten years after winning the school's only softball national championship, Cal coach Diane Ninemire has what she says is her most talented team.

"Player for player at every position, I think this is the best team that's ever worn the blue and gold uniform," Ninemire said. "The thing is, it isn't where we are today, it's where they'll be in the end."

The march toward that finish line begins Thursday when the Bears (48-3, 19-2 Pac-12), ranked No. 1 in both national polls, begin a three-game home series against No. 2 Arizona State (45-5, 17-2), the defending NCAA champion.

By Saturday afternoon, the Bears will know if they have won their first outright conference title since 1987, and on Sunday night they will learn their first-round regional assignment in the NCAA tournament. Cal has submitted a bid to host a regional for the first time.

The Bears were very good last season, going 45-13 and reaching the College World Series. But they leaned heavily on starting pitcher Jolene Henderson and had only three tough hitters in the lineup.

They are a juggernaut this season, ranked in the top 10 nationally in earned run average, runs per game, home runs, batting average, slugging percentage and fielding percentage.

The improvement has come on all fronts:


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Offense: Pleasanton native Valerie Arioto, who missed last season because of an ankle injury, has hit a school-record 21 home runs, leads the nation in walks (69), is second in on-base percentage (.626) and third in slugging (1.009). "Skill-set aside, she helps mentally because she comes out here and she raises the level of our play," Henderson said. Teams pitch around Arioto at their own peril: Freshmen Danielle Henderson and Breana Kostreba have combined for 26 home runs, and the Bears have broken the school record with 72.

Pitching: Jolene Henderson was Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year as a sophomore last season with a 40-10 record and 0.99 ERA. With Arioto available this season, Henderson hasn't had to pitch every game, and she is perhaps better still at 29-1 with a 1.10 ERA. Arioto is 19-2 with a 1.29 ERA. "The pressure's off Jolene and Val to know they've got a great defense behind them and a great offense," Ninemire said. "If they give up a run here or there, there's no panic."

Defense: Aside from scoring, no aspect of the Bears' game has improved more. Cal has committed only 28 errors, down from 53 a year ago. Double plays are up from nine to 17, and the all-freshman left side of the infield has been dynamite. Shortstop Cheyenne Cordes and third baseman Danielle Henderson have totaled only six errors in 101 combined starts.

Speed: Senior Jamia Reid, who is batting .383, leads the Pac-12 with 44 stolen bases -- twice as many as any other player in the conference. Her daring theft of home two weeks ago against UCLA helped jump-start a victory after the Bruins took an early 2-0 lead.

San Jose State coach Pete Turner, whose team lost 7-0 to the Bears early this season, needs no convincing of Cal's prowess.

"We played some really tough teams this year, and Cal, by far, I thought was the best team we played," said Turner, whose Spartans also lost 4-0 at Arizona State. "They have balance up and down the lineup and strong enough pitching to get them through difficult games when they're not scoring runs."

Ninemire is not surprised by this team, which is 40-0 when leading after four innings and has allowed more than three runs only four times.

"I sat down all the players at the end of the year and I told them point blank: If you think you can have less than a .300 batting average and be in the starting lineup, good luck," recalled Ninemire, who has six regulars hitting above that threshold.

Still, it's not a given the Bears can duplicate the national title Cal won in 2002.

"We have a lot more skill," Ninemire said, "but it'll come down to will."

Jolene Henderson believes the Bears will embrace the challenge.

"It seems like the team laughs at pressure ... because we just don't feel it," she said. "That's an amazing atmosphere to play in. Not freaking out, not getting worried. Competition is so much fun for this team."

SOFTBALL SURGE

Cal's softball team has stepped up in several areas compared to last year, holding the No. 1 national ranking as the NCAA tournament nears:
2011 2012
W-L record 45-13 48-3
Batting avg. .289 .322
Runs/game 4.93 7.01
HRs/game 0.59 1.41
Slugging pct. .401 .539
Team ERA 1.70 1.22
Opp. batting avg. .213 .185