To have a shot at playing for its second NCAA softball championship, top-seeded Cal will have to maneuver its way past some of the nation's top pitchers in its half of the College World Series bracket.
The assignment certainly has the Bears' attention. They open bracket play Thursday in Oklahoma City against LSU.
"I don't feel like there's pressure, but I do feel like there is a lot of talk about people wanting to beat us because we have been in the No. 1 spot for a long time," freshman shortstop Cheyenne Cordes said. "Our ranking is not going to help us. The playing field is very even."
Pitching may be the equalizer. Oklahoma, South Florida and Cal rank 1-2-3 nationally in team ERA, and the Bears will face one of the hottest pitchers in the NCAA tournament in LSU junior right-hander Rachele Fico.
"Every team here has a great pitcher with a great ERA," said Cal coach Diane Ninemire. "It's the best of the best."
Winners of each of the tournament's four-team double-elimination brackets will be determined Sunday, and those two teams will meet beginning Monday in a best-of-three series for the NCAA championship.
Fico did not pitch when the Bears (56-5) scored an easy 14-3 win over LSU (39-23) on Feb. 19 at a tournament in Las Vegas. She brings a collegiate-best 0.92 ERA to Oklahoma City and is 4-0 in the postseason, including two shutouts.
"She has been phenomenal," LSU first-year coach Beth Torina said. "She's carried us throughout the year."
Fico measures up nicely against Cal ace Jolene Henderson, who is 5-0 in NCAA games with an 0.48 ERA and a current streak of 23 consecutive scoreless innings.
Fourth-seeded Oklahoma (50-8), whom Cal could face Friday if it gets past LSU, features San Jose native Keilani Ricketts. The junior left-hander this week earned USA Softball's Collegiate Player of the Year award.
A graduate of Archbishop Mitty High, Ricketts is 33-7 with 393 strikeouts in the circle and is batting .407 with 16 home runs. Even so, that ranks her only third among the Sooners in homers, behind freshman Lauren Chamberlain (27) and junior Jessica Shults (19).
But Oklahoma has pitching to go with its power, boasting the nation's No. 1 team ERA at 1.15. Cal is third at 1.21.
Sandwiched between the two is South Florida (50-12), which puts its 1.18 ERA on the line Thursday against Oklahoma. Bulls ace Sara Nevins, a sophomore lefty, has an 0.49 ERA in six postseason games.
There are more heavyweights in the other four-team bracket, led by No. 2 seed Alabama, which knocked Cal out of last year's CWS, and No. 3 seed Arizona State, the defending national champion. Teams can bounce into the opposite bracket if they lose either of their first two games.
Cal's immediate focus is on LSU, which has overcome one of the nation's weakest offenses to reach the World Series. The Tigers' batting average of .221 is 267th out of 283 Division I teams. They have hit just 13 home runs, compared with 81 by Cal and 95 by Oklahoma.
The Tigers have scored no more than one run in 25 of 62 games, but Henderson said she expects to see a different LSU team this time.
"There's a difference between games early in the season and postseason," the Bears' junior pitcher said. "Being in the College World Series means we need to be at the top of our game."
LSU's Torina said her team has figured things out. "We're finally in a spot where we understand who we are as a team," Torina said. "We do a great job of manufacturing runs, but it took us a while to get to that."
Torina said Cal presents a combination of power, pitching and speed comparable to anyone in the SEC. "They do it so well, maybe a little bit better," she said.
The 14 runs Cal scored on the Tigers three months ago tied a record for the most LSU has allowed in a game. Slugger Valerie Arioto did not have any of the Bears' four homers in that game, but Torina called the senior from Pleasanton "arguably the best player in the game."
"We're tired. We were almost up for 24 hours straight," Ninemire said by phone before a noon practice Wednesday. "It's just another obstacle we've got to work through."
Cal's four-team bracket at the College World Series in Oklahoma City features some of the nation's top pitchers. Here's how they rank in the NCAA in ERA:
1. Rachele Fico, LSU 20-11 0.92
3. Keilani Ricketts, Oklahoma 33-7 0.99
4. Sara Nevins, South Florida 31-6 1.03
5. Jolene Henderson, Cal 36-2 1.10