This time last year, Valerie Arioto, the Cal softball team’s All-American ace and slugger, had been injured for months, and sophomore Jolene Henderson was left shouldering the pitching burden.
This time last year, the Bears’ three star freshmen were still crushing high school competition.
This time last year, Cal was outside the top 10 and had just lost its second game of the year to Northwestern.
So when No. 1 Cal (16-0) avenged that loss with a 5-1 triumph over the Wildcats this past Saturday, it was a good benchmark to see how much the Bears have improved since adding their newest members and welcoming Arioto back to the field.
“We were definitely looking forward to that game, and it had an exclamation point by it on our calendar,” said senior Jace Williams. “We come out against every team with the same attitude, but it was nice to come back with a little fire for that game.”
Last year’s game was on the same weekend at the same DeMarini Invitational. The No. 11 Bears were favored, but the Wildcats held them scoreless and forced extra innings, where they came away with a 3-2 win.
“Oh, I remember that weekend, because it was personally one of my worst games,” Williams said. “I dropped a line drive that I would catch 99 of 100 times. It would have been the third out and they ended up scoring. Then in the ninth I popped up instead of getting the tiebreaker.”
Saturday’s game was vastly different. For Northwestern, it was a chance to have history repeat itself as the Wildcats hoped to take down the top team in the nation. For Cal, it was a chance to reassert its strength and demonstrate its progress since last year.
The Bears struck swiftly, tallying four runs in the bottom of the first and tacking on another in the bottom of the third. The Wildcats avoided a shutout with a run in the top of the fifth.
“We executed this year, scored early, and played good defense,” Williams said. “We had trouble executing last year. Their pitcher kept us off balance, but our offense is much stronger this year. We have Val back and a strong freshman class. We’ve all improved.”
Northwestern’s squad has seen some transformation since last year, as the Wildcats lost ace Jessica Smith to graduation and have six new freshmen on the roster this year. Contrastingly, the Bears did not graduate any players and added even more talent with its incoming freshmen.
“Coach said every single player had improved and a lot of that has to do with being competitive with each other at practice,” Williams said. “The freshmen class has come in and elevated competition. Everyone had to pick up their games and that’s what we’ve done.”
The biggest addition has not been any of the freshmen, though. Rather, it has been the return of Arioto, who sat out all last year with a broken ankle. She has elevated an already-strong Cal to a whole new level — she leads the Bears in nearly every offensive category and has dominated from the pitcher’s circle.
“Val being back has made an incredible difference,” Williams said. “She adds another pitcher to the cycle, and her slugging percentage is crazy. What, half of her hits are home runs? She brings talent and physical ability, but also the mental and leaderships aspects too, so that’s huge.”
“Sometimes I wonder if college softball is even fun for Val because she’s so good.”