Cal's Arioto Back on Top
By Kevin Danna
Valerie Arioto was poised for a great 2011 to close out her collegiate softball career. Individually, the pitcher/slugger from nearby Pleasanton, Calif., was named a 2010 first-team All-American and all-Pac-10 selection after leading the Golden Bears with 19 home runs and 81 walks while also boasting a 21-9 record with a 1.43 ERA. Collectively, Valerie and her teammates had powered Cal to three straight super regionals, falling one step short of Oklahoma City each time.
2011 was the year Arioto and Cal were to break into the Women's College World Series. When Jolene Henderson retired the final Kentucky Wildcat to cap off a masterful three-hit shutout, the Golden Bears clinched a spot in softball's Elite Eight. But while her teammates were busy trying to close out the Wildcats, Arioto was watching from the dugout, as she had been all season.
After breaking her leg while sliding into second during a drill in the second practice of the spring, Arioto had to redshirt the 2011 season. Her final campaign of collegiate softball would have to wait until 2012.
"I was crying half because it hurt; half because I knew it was something more serious," Arioto said of the fateful moment. "It was a big shock to me because I never had any serious injury or had to sit out a season."
Despite the injury, head coach Diane Ninemire let the rehabbing Arioto travel with the team all of 2011. This gave No. 20 the opportunity to observe the game from a distance and pick up on facets of softball she wasn't as attuned to when out on the diamond playing the game, even if it was hard for her to just watch.
"I've never just sat back and watched before, but it definitely gave me a different perspective on the game," she said. "I learned a lot about patience and just little aspects of the game that I wouldn't have noticed if I was out on the field."
Although she longed to belt 250-foot bombs to left in Lexington instead of cheering from the dugout, Arioto was proud of her teammates and more than happy to go to her first Women's College World Series. But the end of the 2011 campaign for California was also a new beginning for the East Bay native. Shortly after the season, Arioto was cleared to play softball for the first time in six months; just in time to try out for Team USA.
Rust wasn't an issue—she made the team. Fear of injuring herself again wasn't an issue—she led the national team with 11 RBI en route to a gold medal at the 2011 World Cup in Oklahoma City last July.
"It was like an 'I have nothing to lose' kind of thing because I hadn't played for six months," Arioto said. "It was good for me to get out there and play and obviously learning from the best coaches and some of the best players in the country was going to help me out anyway in softball, and it prepared me for this college season also."
The five-foot, seven-inch righty has stayed healthy her fifth year in Berkeley, and the results have been better than even Arioto herself expected. Inside the circle as the No. 2 starter, Arioto has struck out 155 batters in 126.2 innings alongside a 20-2 record and 1.22 ERA. She was the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week for the week of May 7-13 after striking out 11 Sun Devils in a 5-0 win over Arizona State to win the Pac-12 title.
At the plate? Twenty-two home runs and 57 RBI with a .390 batting average and 1.000 slugging percentage. As a result, she was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year.
"If I can keep going with [my level of play], that would be awesome," Arioto said a day before being named the conference's top player. "The more I can do for my team, the better we are going to do and if we just keep executing like we have been, it will be a good result for us."
The results have been more than good for Cal in 2012, as the Golden Bears have earned the No. 1 overall seed in the 2012 NCAA Division I softball tournament thanks to a 50-4 overall record and a conference best 21-3 in Pac-12 play. Arioto was excited just to get to Oklahoma City last year, but the goal is a little loftier this time around.
"We definitely expect to win it all," she said. "Last year gave us a little taste of what it's like to be there, but I think we wouldn't be happy with just getting there. Obviously we've had a great season thus far, but our expectations are high for ourselves."
Though just three weeks remain in Arioto's collegiate career, she has plenty of softball ahead of her beyond Cal. This summer, she will continue playing with the U.S. National Team in the world championships before moving on to play professionally with the USSSA Pride.
When the Golden Bears conclude their season, Arioto will have plenty of fond memories to take forward.
"I just think the bond and the time you spend with your team is what I'm going to miss the most," Arioto said. "Every day—6:15 a.m., at weights, and no one really wants to be awake right now, but we're all laughing and having a good time anyways. I think those are the times I will miss—just with my team and every day at practice."