Powerhouse Bears take trip to face middling St. Mary’s

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After another Pac-12 sweep this weekend at the hands of helpless Utah, the No. 1 Cal softball team might be forgiven for resting on its laurels. The Bears’ take a one-game trip to Cottrell Field on Wednesday at 3 p.m. to take on 15-19 St. Mary’s of the Pacific Coast Softball Conference. The tilt, at Cottrell Field in Moraga, Calif., should provide little competitive discomfort for a team that has taken out top-10 teams with ease.

But as a redshirt senior and cleanup hitter extraordinaire, Valerie Arioto knows the responsibility of keeping Cal (37-1) focused rests on her powerful shoulders, no matter who the opponent.

“We need to maintain our level of play and not play down to our opponents,” Arioto said. “The biggest thing is whoever we play, we execute our game plan and prevent the opposition from executing theirs.”

Cal is in the midst of a uniquely dominant stretch. The Pac-12 is the most difficult softball conference in the country. Six Pac-12 teams sit in the top 20 of the NCAA Women’s Softball RPI, representing the largest quantity for any individual conference. Facing off against two top-10 teams (Stanford and Washington) and a solid Pac-12 contender (Utah), the Bears have not just won all nine games; their competition has been utterly obliterated.

The margin of victory eclipsed eight runs for more than half of the games. Cal has conceded more than three runs just once in this stretch.

All of this indicates that the Gaels, like mid-major opponents before them, may fall swiftly at the hands of the prodigious Bears.

History supports this assertion. So far, the Bears have played UC Davis, Sacramento State and Princeton in one-game increments. The common denominator among these schools is the size of each softball program; hailing from conferences like the Big West, all three squads have substantially less funding than a large Pac-12 juggernaut like Cal.

In all three games against the smaller schools, the Bears have mercy-ruled the opponent, accumulating eight runs more than the opposition before the seven innings could conclude.

Because St. Mary’s is an average team hailing from a mid-major conference, a mercy-rule result is almost surely in the cards.

Yet despite the lack of competition for Wednesday’s game, the Bears will bring a fully loaded lineup that has no intention of slowing down its rapid ascent towards the pinnacle of college softball.

“Our biggest obstacle this season is keeping our level of play consistent,” Arioto said. “Being ranked No. 1, it can be easy to become complacent. We just need to continue to raise the quality of play everyday.”

With the way the Bears are hitting, not much may need to change. Cal scored 33 runs this weekend over three games, with every hitter contributing in some way. Arioto continues to mash at an otherworldly pace, hitting another home run over the weekend to bring her total to 16, good for the fifth best in college softball.

“There are always areas to improve upon,” Arioto conceded. “But at this point, it’s mostly just maintenance.”