Feb. 6, 2012
BERKELEY - In January of last year, Valerie Arioto seemed poised for the greatest season of her already storied California softball career.
She was coming off a junior season when she earned first-team All-America honors after leading the Bears with 81 walks, a .590 on-base percentage, .819 slugging and .355 batting in addition to a 1.43 ERA in the circle.
Her Golden Bear squad had lost just two starters, Arioto was the lone senior and de facto leader. After losing to an SEC school in Super Regional play for the third year in a row in June 2010, Arioto and her Bears had one goal in mind - make it to the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City - with the all the makings for that to happen. Additionally fueling the fire and prepping her for one last swan song, Arioto spent the 2010 summer playing with the U.S. national team, garnering key experience on both the international and domestic level.
But then, on the second day of spring practice in January 2010, what should have been a routine slide into second base turned into a nightmare for Arioto, her coaches and her teammates for the squad's sole senior broke her leg.
"At first, it hit me hard and I was pretty upset," Arioto said. "But as time went by and I realized how much support and help I had, some of my worries went away."
While Arioto dealt with her demons, the outside world wondered what would happen to the Bears' season.
"I knew this was going to test our team to see who else was going to step up and pick up the slack of Val not being there," Cal head coach Diane Ninemire said. "We had so many hopes and dreams for her last year because of the value that she brings to this team in so many different ways. For any athlete who has an injury and has high hopes, especially being a senior wanting to leave a legacy, I'm sure it was devastating for Val. It was devastating for all of us."
Finding a Place
Arioto's boisterous laugh and effervescent personality veiled any pain so much so that the only markers of her redshirt year were her crutches, and later a walking boot. When her team practiced at Levine-Fricke, Arioto would work on her conditioning. Traveling with the Bears on every trip as if she was still a starter, when her team played, Arioto would help in any way that she could whether it was lending her voice to a cheer, offering a piece of advice to a temporarily sullen teammate or scorekeeping.
"She found ways to participate and give that I don't think she even realized she could," Ninemire said of Arioto's devoted presence last year. "I think the whole experience, as bad as it was, ended up giving us a lot of good things."
Naturally, Arioto is altruistically humble when asked about her contributions.
"Most of the season, I couldn't walk, but I tried to help out the coaches and girls when I could," Arioto said. "With the talent and great girls we had last year, I didn't really need to do much!"
However you look at it, Arioto's relationship with her teammates was symbiotic for the unbreakable Golden Bear bond helped bring Arioto out of any dark periods.
"It was physically hard recovering and rehabbing my leg, but I think it was more mentally challenging," Arioto said. "I had a lot of support from my teammates and family, so I began to see my redshirt year as a learning experience. I think it helped me grow as a player and as a person!"
One of the more difficult parts of last year had to be when Cal made it to Oklahoma City for the Women's World Series, a feat not achieved in Arioto's time in Berkeley.
"It was definitely hard - I wanted to play so bad," Arioto said of watching the postseason transpire from the dugout. "But again, I got to see the game from a different perspective and learn a lot about the game, which a lot of players don't get to do until they are done playing or coaching."
The Long Road Back
While her Bears did their workouts in Kentucky and then Oklahoma City, Arioto pounded the pavement.
"I can't say enough about how great our trainers were in helping my recovery process," Arioto said. "As far as getting back into softball shape, I put a lot of work in, but I also reverted back to basics. I just tried to play softball like I had been doing for years and not over think it. Work-out wise, I'm still in the processes of getting back in shape!"
Once the squad returned from the World Series, Arioto laced up her cleats for the first time since her accident to try out for the U.S. senior national team. From June 12-16, Arioto competed with athletes who had played all year for a chance for one of 17 spots on the senior squad.
"I had some doubts," Arioto said of her mindset heading into tryouts. "But I think what helped me succeed was my `I have nothing to lose' attitude going into it. I went to the tryout more relaxed and ready to play."
Along with her superior softball skill set, her tranquil outlook worked for she made the team.
"I thought it was tremendous," Ninemire said. "To think that she hadn't even really practiced or anything before going out for the tryout, it just goes to show you what an outstanding athlete she is. I don't know very many people who could have done that without putting in the hours of fielding and hitting to be able to have a successful year. She didn't drop off at all. She just won't be denied. I think that her drive propels her to be the very best."
Donning the Red, White and Blue
While Arioto had spent many a summer playing softball, the six-month sabbatical made this a unique experience. The U.S. won gold at the World Cup of Softball, at which Arioto started all six games, paced the Americans in RBI with 11 - 10 of which coming with two outs. She was second in slugging with an incredible 1.063 and third amongst the starters in batting, swinging .438.
"I had a great time playing this summer," Arioto recalled. "The coaching staff is the best and the girls on my team are the best in the world. I got to travel and play softball, not much could be better. I got to experience some once in a lifetime things!"
Arioto had another priceless experience when she traveled to Mexico for the Pan American Games. With the U.S. and Canada tied 1-1 in the gold-medal game of the Pan American Games, Arioto drove in the go-ahead run to put the Americans up for good en route to their 11-1 victory over their northern brethren to take home gold at Pan Ams on Oct. 23.
"The whole thing was an awesome experience - Mexico was welcoming and we all had a great time!" Arioto said. "It gave me chills to hear our national anthem on foreign soil while we stood on the podium with our gold medals. It's an honor getting the opportunity to represent our country."
2012: Oklahoma City or Bust
With her two gold medals in hand, Arioto returned to Berkeley this January and successfully made it through the second day of practice without another broken bone. In addition to boasting three first-team All-Americans on this year's team, the Bears return all nine starters from the 2011 squad. With the strongest schedule in recent history, it's a long road to the Women's College World Series, but Arioto has her mind in the right place.
"We will see when it gets closer to games, but right now my goal is just to get better every day!" Arioto said. "My role is to hopefully lead by example and help out when I can with my experience. I think we have a great, talented group of girls, so everything else will fall into place!"
The campaign for a national title begins Feb. 10 against fellow perennial powerhouse Tennessee. When the Bears take the field in Arizona on Friday, there will be no one more excited than Arioto.
During the 30 days leading up to the first game of California softball's 2012 campaign on Feb. 10, CalBears.com will be posting a multitude of releases and features. Check back Tuesday to read the notes on this weekend's season-opening tournament. To see all 30-for-30 releases and features in one place, please click here.