This year’s softball team featured an Olympian, several national team players and prospects, and multiple All-American and player of the year candidates.
The Bears breezed through the regular season, took down multiple ranked opponents, and became the first Cal team to host both the Regionals and Super-Regionals in postseason play.
Despite one of the best regular seasons in Cal softball history, two losses to ranked opponents in the Women’s College World Series proved the Bears were not immortal.
But the season was still legendary in a different way.
“We made history,” said senior Frani Echavarria. “The coaches are proud, and all of the girls are proud to have been a part of (a season) like that.”
The season was one of the most promising in recent history, reigning as the No. 1 team in the country for 13 of the season’s 15 weeks. A national championship was realistic, in reach, even expected.
But the highly-favored Bears saw their season end early, falling to eventual national champion Alabama, 5-2.
But though the program fell short of its ultimate goal, the season was the best Cal softball has seen in a decade and brought the team to the pinnacle of the collegiate softball world.
One of the biggest reasons for Cal’s success was Valerie Arioto. The senior utility player, who split time between the pitching circle and first base, hit two homers in her first game back in a Cal uniform after injury sidelined her for the entirety of her true senior season. Arioto was able to make a full recovery and rejoined her Bears for a fifth year, and posted some of the best stats in the country. The Pac-12 Player of the Year posted huge stats both in the circle and at the plate, finishing the year with 23 home runs and a 1.32 ERA.
Finally at full force, the whole-again Bears were ready to take on the softball world, which they proved during their non-conference campaign. The first five games featured five home runs from Arioto, and the squad started the year on a 22-game winning streak before losing their first game of the season to Hawaii.
That loss proved to be just a hiccup, however, as the Bears went on to win all of their remaining nonconference games.
“Everyone on this team has their own individual talents and intangibles,” Echavarria said. “We all had clear goals, and we came together as big sisters to the younger girls.”
The team entered conference play at No. 2 in the nation and ascended to No. 1 after sweeping Stanford in the first series of conference play. From there, Cal would hold on to its position for 13 straight weeks, losing just three conference games all year.
Needing a series win against No. 2 Arizona State in the final series of the year to clinch a Pac-12 title, Cal came up big. By defeating the Sun Devils in the first two games of the series, the Bears clinched the Pac-12 championship for the first time in school history.
Going into the postseason with a 50-4 record, the Bears weren’t expecting any challenges in the postseason, but they faced one early on.
A regional loss to Arkansas forced the Bears to claw back from the loser’s bracket, but three straight victories were enough for Cal to stay alive for Super Regionals. The Bears staved off Washington twice to punch their tickets to Oklahoma City.
But a season of triumph ended in heartbreak for the Bears.
Cal beat LSU in the first round, but was unable to score off of Oklahoma’s Keilani Ricketts in their second game. With that loss, Cal moved to the loser’s bracket in the double elimination tournament where they beat Oregon. That win pitted them against No. 2 Alabama in a win-or-go home game for a chance to face Oklahoma in the WCWS final series.
Unfortunately for Cal, the Crimson Tide sunk the No. 1 seed Bears in what would be the final game of the unforgettable season.
“We showed some fight, but Alabama got the timely hits, Echavarria said. “I’m proud of my team for how far we went … Everyone wants to make those final games, and it wasn’t in the cards for us.”
Though the big victory eluded them, many players achieved personal goals.
Jamia Reid achieved her goal of stealing 50 bases in a single season, setting a new school record. She, pitcher Jolene Henderson, and Arioto were honored as All-Americans. Arioto was also awarded the Lowe’s Senior Class Award, named Pac-12 player of the year, and was one of three finalists for national player of the year.
Cal won its first ever Pac-12 Championship, and became the first team to host both Regionals and Super Regionals. At the time, these accomplishments were just stepping stones to a greater goal, but they take on greater meaning now that the season is over.
“We may not have won the WCWS, but we came amazingly close to achieving every goal we had,” Echavarria said.
The team will lose a lot of its talent with the departure of seniors like Arioto, Echavarria and Reid. But the window of opportunity is not closed.
Instead, the Bears are reflecting on all of the dedication and progress it took to build this year’s powerhouse and channeling that into their plans for the future. The returners are eager to integrate a lauded incoming freshman class into their strong foundation.
“I’m really excited to see where they go and where they take the program,” Echavarria said. “We left the program in good hands. Jolene (Henderson) is a fighter, and she will make sure that the girls work hard and practice and get back to the WCWS.”
While postseason elimination has been hard for the whole team, the seniors in particular are grappling with the end of their time at Cal. Though some plan to move forward with national or professional teams, most of the players will no longer have the sport that has been so central to their lives.
Echavarria was on deck when the Bears suffered the final out that ended their season. For her, the realization that it was all over struck her immediately.
“I was obviously upset that we didn’t make it to those final games, but I was even more upset that I realized that I would no longer be a part of this team anymore, and that is what hit me hardest,” she said.
The Bears did not achieve the pinnacle that was expected of them. They did not win the Women’s College World Series and bring a national title to Berkeley.
But they did come close, and that in itself is an accomplishment.
“It is going to be hard,” said Echavarria, “but I will cherish all of these memories all of my life.
“I am so proud to have been a Golden Bear.”