Cal's pitcher enjoys sibling revelry
Danielle Henderson knows all the looks. With nearly two decades of experience being Jolene Henderson's sister, she's fluent in them.
A freshman third baseman for California and the younger sister of the team's pitching ace, Danielle intuitively understands every furrow of Jolene's brow or squint of her eyes in the same way a poker pro reads another player's tells at the table. The body language tells her when her older sister is growing frustrated with a postage-stamp strike zone, and that is Danielle's cue to jog over from her position and offer Jolene a handshake shared by just the two of them and a reminder to stop worrying and just do what she does best.
Danielle recognizes the look in Jolene's eyes when opponents think they get a read on her changeup, followed soon thereafter by the glare that seems to ask if these people seriously think they can solve her so easily. Then Jolene throws it anyway, what Northwestern All-American Adrienne Monka called the "nastiest pitch in the country to hit." Danielle knows it well. She faced it more than anyone growing up, and when all those hours of repetition finally allowed the younger sister to make contact with at least the hint of regularity, Jolene simply developed a second version of the change.
California wouldn't be where it is without that competitive desire.
"The littlest things will get her motivated," Danielle said. "She is a workhorse. She will work for the team no matter what. The only thing she cares about is getting the [win], so she'll work forever."
It's equally true that Jolene wouldn't be who she is without Danielle.
The No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, California opens the Women's College World Series as the favorite to win the second national championship in program history. The Bears have a superstar hitter, Valerie Arioto, one of three finalists for national player of the year who doubles as Jolene's understudy in the circle; a lineup that doesn't offer any easy outs; and a rock-solid defense. But the key to the whole thing is the 5-foot-8 junior who is 76-12 with a 1.03 ERA since the beginning of last season.
Jolene isn't an overpowering physical talent along the lines of an all-time great like Monica Abbott. She isn't as imposing as someone like current Oklahoma ace Keilani Ricketts. She doesn't throw as hard as current Alabama ace Jackie Traina. She just gets people out. Over and over and over again until they want to quit. No pitcher is mentally tougher.
"She just is one of the most poised pitchers I have seen in my 30 years of coaching softball," Hawaii coach Bob Coolen said. "She steps on the mound, in her mind she already has the game won, and it's just a matter of her teammates getting that one run. That's all she needs in her mind to win a ballgame."
Plenty of great athletes seemingly came into the world looking for something to win and someone to beat. That wasn't the case with Jolene, who took up pitching and playing in the infield only because her coaches and parents needed to do something to keep the attention of the girl who used to sit in the outfield and make flower bracelets while the game went on around her. She didn't love softball back then, and the early results didn't suggest anyone needed to worry about hotel reservations in Oklahoma City a decade down the road. But in time, as her pitches started to fool hitters instead of flying past them to the backstop, she fell in love with the competition and the intensity.
So, too, did Danielle while watching her sister. Two years younger than Jolene, that could have been a familiar recipe for friction, one sister treading on the other's heels while simultaneously trying to follow in her footsteps. But any sibling rivalry skipped the household. When Danielle, then around 9 years old, was reduced to tears after she didn't make an all-star team that Jolene did, the older sister promised unprompted to wear No. 8, her younger sister's favorite number. In school, they ate lunch together, met up between classes and hung out with the same friends. At home, their parents might have suffered no end of frustration trying to get them to go to sleep, but they had to go to only one place to keep reiterating it. The sisters were always together, having too much fun to pack it in for the night.
In fact, just about the only time Jolene didn't want her younger sister close by her side came during Danielle's early days playing third base, a position that demands a certain amount of courage given the smaller dimensions of the softball diamond and the speed with which balls come off the bat.
"She is like my best friend," Jolene said. "I go out there and watch her play, and I'm a very, very protective sister -- I'm a very protective teammate. I was always worried when I was pitching because she plays third base. She's got quick reactions, but I was always a little nervous that they'd hit the ball at her. I'd get nervous. And finally, I was like, 'She's really good; she can defend herself.' And I stopped being so protective and worrying they'd hit the ball at her."
The two played together for two years in high school, and there was never any doubt where Danielle would go to college once Jolene picked California (their brother David is also a student at the school). Far from struggling to live up to her sister's accomplishments, Danielle stepped into the starting lineup on opening day this season and never looked back. She's second on the team in home runs and RBIs and third in slugging percentage. Living up to Jolene's words about her ability to fend for herself in the field, she's committed just three errors in 60 starts at the hot corner.
It's an impressive showing for any freshman, but all the more so from someone who had the added pressure of her last name to live up to.
"She's so nice; she doesn't get angry," Jolene said. "She's just calm. And that hasn't changed, even in college, and I think that's a big deal. A lot of kids get into college and then they put pressure on themselves, making college out to be something so much more -- even though it is, putting that pressure on you makes you change into a different player."
And in those moments when Jolene's competitiveness might tip from asset to liability in the circle, Danielle has a way of materializing.
"Automatically, I just listen to her because, I don't know, she's awesome," Jolene said. "She's not super-loud; she's just very consistent and strong. It's calming to have that there."
Jolene is healthy after playing through injuries in the past. She benefited from more rest this season, the result of Arioto's return after missing the entire 2011 season with an injury. And Jolene is a year older, a year wiser and a year stronger. All of which are reasons she's capable of being the best pitcher in a collection of great ones this week in Oklahoma City.
But the reason standing at third base might be the most important of them all. At her best, Jolene pitches like someone willing to take on the world by herself. At her best, she never does.
"My teammates at Cal are awesome," Jolene said. "I'm so close with all of them, especially the seniors, and I'm going to miss them so much because we're so close. But my freshman and sophomore years, not having my sister there, and not having that person for two years was hard. She's always been that rock for me.
"My team was that for the last two years, but now that she's here, it's just so much stronger. It was awesome to play with her when she is there and not in the stands anymore."