OKLAHOMA CITY – Danielle Henderson took a 28-hour road trip to Oklahoma City a year ago to watch her older sister Jolene play in the Women’s College World Series.

This year, as a college freshman, she was part of another long and arduous trip from northern California to Oklahoma City. This time around, however, as part of the California Bears’ travel party, the trip included flight changes, delays, some extra time in Houston, and Midwestern thunderstorms.

California, the top seed at the 2012 WCWS, did eventually get settled early Wednesday morning, and then worked through a tough LSU squad on Thursday afternoon to advance to a winner’s bracket contest against Oklahoma.

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The Bears improved to 57-5 with the victory against LSU, 37 of those wins with Jolene Henderson, a hard-throwing junior right-hander, in the circle. Danielle played a solid third base on Thursday, hitting a double and adding a key play, defensively, in the top of the seventh inning.

The sisters have been a key cog in the Bears’ success all season. Their parents, Joe and Mickey, are obviously hanging somewhere around cloud nine this week.

“There’s been a lot of help coming through,” said Joe a day before the tournament got underway. “A lot of practices, a lot of traveling, but it’s rewarding. Even if they didn’t make it to this level I have to say that there are still a lot of great memories and a lot of great times. I wouldn’t trade anything about it for the world.

“It’s awesome to be at the College World Series with two daughters.”

In the WCWS opener for the Bears, Henderson was not perfect in the circle, but still, as usual, pretty good. In seven innings against a cagey LSU squad she allowed eight hits, walked three and struck out five. After giving up two second-inning runs, four innings of scoreless ball allowed the offensive-minded Bears to mount a rally.

Getting hitters out wasn’t always easy for Henderson. To put it bluntly, she just wasn’t very good.

“I was terrible and I really didn’t like it,” said Jolene. “I started out in the outfield, picking flowers, not really paying attention. It was either pitcher or first base, someplace to keep me busy. I threw it off the backstop a few times. I played soccer, too, but when I started to have some success in softball I liked it a lot more.”

Dad remembers a game, when Jolene was around 10, when she struck out 11 of 12 batters faced. The rest, as they say, is history.

Twice at Sheldon High School in Elk Grove, Calif., she was named an ESPN/Under Armour All-American. The recruiting process started long before her senior year of high school.

“Going to [California] Berkeley was an easy decision,” said Jolene. “It’s a great school, and to be able to play softball for such a great program at the same time, it’s been awesome so far. It isn’t always easy, but to be around a campus like Berkeley, there is always something going on and so many interesting people. It’s just a great place to be.”

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As a freshman, Jolene hit a pair of homers and had 23 RBIs, but it was in the circle where she shined, going 20-10 with a 1.78 ERA for a Bears’ squad that lost in a Super Regional. Last spring, as a sophomore, she was the Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year, compiling a fabulous 40-10 standard with a razor-thin .99 ERA. The 2012 campaign has been equally as dominant – 36-2 with a 1.16 ERA entering the WCWS – adding the Pac-12 pitcher of the year honor to her ever-growing list of accomplishments.

“She has been our leader,” said Cal head coach Diane Ninemire, in her 25th season. “To compete at the level she does against the type of competition we face week in and week out shows just how good she is.

“She will leave here as the best pitcher I’ve had.”

Michelle Granger, who pitched for Cal from 1989-93, recorded a school-record 119 wins. That number will most likely fall in 2013 – Jolene had 97 entering Friday.

With her win against LSU on the opening day of the WCWS, Henderson picked up her 37th victory of the season, the second highest season total by a Bear hurler. No. 1, of course, is the 40 she recorded last spring.

“We have such a good offense, I don’t have to worry about giving up a run or two sometimes,” said the junior who wears a linebacker’s jersey number 54 in honor of her father. “Our team has the ability to score runs; that makes it easier. I just have to battle.”

One of those hitters, a young freshman third baseman who happens to be her little sister, has no problem hitting one of the nation’s best.

“It is not a joke that I made her come to Cal so she wouldn’t hit home runs off of me,” said Jolene. “She still does. I can’t get her out no matter what I do.”

There was never a doubt Danielle was going to be a softball player. From an early age she was fielding grounders from her father – she still does every chance she gets. Danielle led Sheldon to back-to-back CIF titles in 2008 and 2009. As a freshman for Ninemire’s squad she brought a .282 batting average with 15 home runs to Oklahoma City. Only superstar senior Valerie Arioto has more homers for the Bears with her 23.

But, almost hard to fathom, is a freshman third baseman making just three errors in her first season of Division I softball.

“[Father Joe] never took it easy,” said Danielle. “I can remember him hitting grounders, me having bruises all over. We would play these little games and it really helped me learn to play defense. I’ve always had a pretty strong arm, so third was a good place for me.”

Danielle shows her artistic touch
Henderson family

“She has a special ability; her hands are amazing,” said Ninemire. “And the way she works, she is only going to get better.”

It hasn’t always been softball for the younger Henderson. As most kids do, she dabbled in coloring books always having to “stay inside the lines.” But it evolved into much more.

“She is amazing,” said Jolene. “I don’t have any of that artistic talent. I’m still doing stick figures.”

“[Danielle] enjoys it,” said Joe. “She has always been about getting out there, working and playing hard, but she has this other side, a very artistic side to her. Some of it is just free-hand stuff. It started with coloring books and has developed into something that she really enjoys. It’s good to have that outlet during the long season.”

During the long grind of a first-year college student-athlete, especially at an intellectually vibrant campus, an outlet is never a bad thing.

“It’s been tough,” admitted Danielle. “I was never really that serious about art until I took a class. I have a ton of things I’m working on; during the season it helps me to relax.”

The focus this week for the pair is winning a national championship, something California did a decade ago. Regardless of how it ends, the Henderson’s first season together in Berkeley has already been pretty special.

“It’s been amazing,” said Danielle. “Last year, to be here watching my sister was great. But to be here playing together is unbelievable. I think it has helped both of us this year, having each other to lean on when things have been tough.”

“I came here to help my team win a national championship,” said Jolene, who has pitched 50.2 of Cal’s 51 innings this postseason. “And if I could be on a team with my sister and do it; that would really be something to remember.”