For love of the game

After a freak injury last year, Valerie Arioto is now one of the best hitters in the nation.

Tony Zhou/Staff
Arioto has been of the best hitters in college softball this year, hitting .421 with 19 home runs and a remarkable 1.074 slugging percentage.

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“It was the second day of practice last year …”

So begins the current chapter of Valerie Arioto’s life.

Cal’s softball superstar, who shines as a pitcher, first baseman and slugger, has progressed through her sport just as many other athletes have. Well, other extraordinary athletes.

She started playing the game at a young age in a recreational capacity and quickly moved through the ranks of competitive traveling teams. She dominated high school competition while playing for Foothill High School in nearby Pleasanton, Calif., and committed to play for Cal by the time she was a sophomore.

Even her college career has dazzled.  She accumulated conference accolades her first two years, and her junior year reads like an athlete’s dream resume: first team All-American, first team all Pac-10 and a member of the American Softball Association’s Top-10 Watch List. Her skills took her to the international level, where she represented the United States as a member of the U.S. Futures Team after her second and third years at Cal.

Everything was going according to plan. She was going to continue on this incredible projection and have her most impressive season as a senior, take her team to the College World Series and graduate as one of the most lauded players ever to don the crisp Cal uniform. She even had  realistic hope of being promoted from the Futures Team to the Women’s National Team.

That is, until life threw her a curveball she never saw coming.

On that fateful second day of practice last spring, the team was doing a sliding drill. A bunter put the ball in play, and the players would take turns sliding into each base.

Arioto was the last player to go.

“I slid into second, and I was thinking about it too much that I slowed my slide down,” Arioto says. “My cleat got stuck in the dirt, and my foot went the opposite way.”

She, along with all of her coaches and teammates, saw the vision of her perfect senior season literally go up in a cloud of rust-hued dust.

“I felt something pop, and I started screaming and crying bloody murder,” she says. “I’ve sprained my ankles before in soccer, and I knew what that felt like, and I knew this wasn’t that. That was a different kind of cry. It was a ‘holy shit’ cry.”

Her left fibula was broken. What promised to be her best season yet was over before it even started.

Arioto resigned herself to the fact that she may never return to her former prominence. She was helpless to do anything but make teary calls to her parents and mentally prepare herself for the surgery and rehabilitation ahead of her. Doctors told her she would heal physically in five to six months, but she knew that physical healing may not resolve everything.

After doctors put a plate in the outer side of her lower leg to push the bones back together, Arioto was left with scars that pierced far deeper than her skin.

“In my head I was thinking ‘What if I don’t come back good, what if I can’t hit, what if I can’t field a ball?’” Arioto says. “In my mind, I’m thinking I may not come back as good, which motivated me to come back better just to prove myself wrong.”

Arioto had the option of graduating that spring and getting back into the game solely as an international player. She decided to redshirt the year to give herself the chance to come back to her Cal team and give herself a shot at the senior year that eluded her.

But her first step towards a comeback was at the national level. A week after Arioto was deemed fully recovered last summer, she went to the national team tryouts. It was her first time putting on cleats in more than five months.

“I don’t think I was actually ready, but my mindset was, I have nothing to lose,” Arioto says. (Recovering)“ was a long, hard process, but it finally paid off.”

After a successful  summer with the national team, including a win at the Pan American Games, Arioto returned to Cal, finally ready to experience her senior season.

So far, that season has transformed into something that neither she nor her teammates could have imagined. Rather than just being one of the best players in the conference, Arioto is now a arguably the best player in the country. She has already been named one of the Top-25 finalists for the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year, and many anticipate her to take the award outright.  She is a triple threat — dangerous in the pitching circle, at first base and in the batter’s box.  Arioto is second in the nation and first in the Pac-12 in on-base percentage (.629), and she paces the Pac-12 in home runs (19) and slugging percentage (1.087). She maintains the third-best ERA in the conference at 1.30.

Even with Arioto redshirting, last year’s senior-less team reached the College World Series. Add a powerful freshman class and Arioto back into the lineup and Cal has emerged as the No. 1 team in the country. The Bears have only lost two games so far this season and have their sights set on not just reaching the College World Series but winning it.

Arioto’s softball career will not culminate in Oklahoma City. She will return to the national team this summer to lead the squad at the International Softball Federation World Championships in Canada.

After that, her future is again uncertain.

One dream in particular remains on hold. The Summer Olympics are no longer a possibility for softball players. In 2006, the sport was removed from the Olympic slate, dashing the dreams of softball stars like Arioto everywhere.

“It is something that every athlete strives for, and it is upsetting … that young girls can’t hope for that or wish for that anymore,” says Arioto. “It is hard to see young girls not be able to have the same dream I did.”

Options are limited for softball players to pursue post-collegiate play. Arioto hopes to win the World Championships as an alternative to the Olympics, even though the event does not carry as much weight or name recognition. Following her summer with the national team, Arioto may play with one of a handful of professional teams, and she is toying with the idea of going abroad to play. Uncertainties abound as she faces yet another point in her life in which the future is completely up in the air — she knows that her softball days may be numbered.

“All of my life, I’ve always had something in line to do. It was always go to school, go to college, do this … now it’s just very unsure what I’m going to do,” says Arioto. “I can’t play softball forever.

“Am I ready to make the decision not to play yet? I don’t think I am.”