California utlility player Valerie Arioto knows herself a lot better after recuperating from an injured leg last season.
She’s now more patient. She has an enhanced perspective on how to play softball. And she knows that period of time where her eyes were swimming in her tears because of her situation was OK as long as she comes back better than ever.
“I don’t even think I can count how many times I cried,” Arioto said. “It was that many. It was definitely harder at first. Just the initial, ‘I’m not playing. This is really weird.’ But as time went on, I sort of got used to it. I got a lot of support from my teammates — probably more than I think I supported them and helped them. I am grateful for that. I just wanted to play again.”
If ever there was any doubt that she was fully recovered, it was erased in Cal’s opening games in Tempe, Ariz., at the Kajikawa Classic. Arioto homered in her first at bat, the first of three she would hit out of the park while driving in nine. Couple that with her pitching — 7.0 innings without surrendering an earned run — and Arioto earned USA Softball Player of the Week honors.
But there’s more. Last weekend at the Louisville Slugger Classic, Arioto hit .857 during her four games and was named Pac 12 Player of the Week for the second consecutive week.
“My team makes it really easy for me to get something like player of the week,” Arioto said. “With people around you that are so motivated, and work so hard, it’s kind of contagious. As a team, we really push each other, and I think that had a lot to do with my success the first week.
“There’s a bunch of people that come in before practice to get work in, a bunch that stay after practice to get work in. Just putting the extra work in and helping each other out. Our pitchers willing to pitch live to us whenever we want. Hitters wanting to hit live off us pitchers. Just people wanting to be there and wanting to get better. I think that’s what really motivated me to keep working hard.”
She’s been on a mission since the second day of practice in 2011. At practice, while working on stealing, Arioto’s left cleat caught in the dirt and her leg broke. During the ensuing five months, she did rehab work and whatever softball drills she could manage using one leg.
“I am back to normal now,” Arioto said. “That was a very hard experience — teaching my leg to walk again. I have to thank my parents and training staff for getting me through it and moving me forward.”
By forward Arioto meant physically more so than emotionally. She was thrilled for Cal’s success last season, its trip to the Women’s College World Series and a fifth-place finish. But the Golden Bears did it without her, something a proud athlete felt twinges of jealousy about. It, too, was a motivating factor.
“It’s unfortunate that I didn’t get to play in it,” Arioto said. “I’ve been here five years and I haven’t played in one. That definitely is a goal.
“I think it’s great that they did well. You could see the drive and determination of the girls and I thought that was awesome. But sitting out wasn’t the best feeling in the world. I learned from it. It was a good experience. I’m glad it’s over with though.”
Cal is glad as well.
Arioto’s fast start is a huge reason why California is back in the national championship discussion. Entering the week, Arioto led the Pac 12 in slugging (2.000) and home runs (seven), was tied for second in RBI (18) and walks (11) while adding a .625 batting average.
“She had an outstanding weekend for her first outing since her injury and has not lost a step in her play,” Cal head coach Diane Ninemire said. “It’s really great to have her back on our team and adding extra hitting, defense and pitching.”
As blessings in disguise go, this was a great one for Cal. It forced Ninemire’s team to adjust, and it did so beautifully, finishing 45-13 a year ago.
“Val going down last year was very disappointing,” Ninemire said. “I also knew that it 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. In many ways, when things like that happen, you just can’t understand why.
“But it became apparent as the 2011 season went on that it really strengthened our team because so many other people had to pick up where she left off. I think what that does that is create a situation where our team this year will be so much stronger than we ever could have imagined it to be because it was the door that opened for the others to step up and do something that maybe they didn’t even think was possible.”
Having lost no key players from last season, Cal (8-0) again is strong. It all starts with its pitching staff. Back are Arioto, All-American Jolene Henderson and Ari Erceq. Henderson led the team in wins (5), innings pitched (28) and strikeouts (30) throught the first three weekends.
Depth is also a hallmark. There is competition at every position and the players are versatile. Jace Williams, Danielle Henderson – a freshman and sister of Jolene – and Breana Kostreba are all at third base. At shortstop there is a battle between Cheyenne Cordes and Britt Vonk. Ditto for Victoria Jones and Mary Lee at second, and Arioto, Jolene Henderson and Alex Robben all rotate at first base.
“By far, we have the most depth that Cal has ever known in softball, in all the years that I’ve coached here,” said Ninemire, who is in her 25th season leading the Golden Bears. “We have a tremendous group of players that play multiple positions that are excellent hitters. I think we have a great balance of speed and power. I feel we have all the tools to do what we need.
“It’s just going to come down to performing in game situations and understanding their roles and staying strong as a team and continue to be all the time all the way. If this team can stay strong as team then they’ll give themselves the opportunity to go the furthest that this team has known for a long time.”
This is right in line with what Arioto has hoped for this season. Nothing short of a trip to Oklahoma City and the Women’s College World Series will do.
“We have the talent and we have the great girls,” Arioto said. “With the team chemistry that we have, my expectations are high for our team, and I hope it plays out.
“We’re 8-0 right now. In my five years at Cal, this is our best start. I think it can only get better. It’s our best start, and hopefully it will be our best end as well.”
* as of Feb. 19, 2012