BERKELEY — Valerie Arioto broke her leg sliding into second base during the Cal softball team’s second practice last year. Now, after missing a full season, the national Player of the Year candidate is looking to lead the top-ranked Bears to a national championship.
There’s no shortage of reasons why the Bears are ranked No. 1 in the country right now: They lead the Pac-12 Conference in team pitching (1.25 ERA), team fielding (.982 percent) and opened the season with 16 straight road wins before playing a single game at home. Adding a player who is batting .410, with 20 home runs and 54 RBIs (Arioto’s also 19-2 with a 1.31 ERA on the mound) to a lineup that returned all of its starters from last year’s Women’s College World Series team hasn’t hurt either.
“Val is one of the best players in the country,” coach Diane Ninemire said, adding: “She’s a coach’s dream.”
But Arioto was devastated after breaking her leg last year; she didn’t know if she’d be the same player after missing a full season.
“I was scared that I wasn’t going to be able to come back and be able to hit or pitch,” she said.
The hardest part was being physically incapacitated on crutches. Arioto is the kind of athlete who likes to get after it in the gym and push the limits of her abilities; but the injury taught her patience.
“As an athlete, you’re taught to push the pain,” she said. “It took everything in me to take it slow.”
Despite the injury, Arioto went to practice every day and traveled with the team. Ninemire said watching the game in the dugout from a coach’s perspective made the first baseman a more complete player.
“Now she can bring that knowledge with her in addition to the great abilities that she has,” she said.
Arioto homered to center in her first at-bat of the season and then hit another big fly in her third trip to the plate.
The next day, she pitched a two-hit shutout on the mound.
On April 22, Arioto broke her own single-season school record for home runs, cracking her 20th against Oregon.
She’s also a finalist for the 2012 Lowe’s Senior CLASS award, which goes the senior student-athlete who shows extraordinary excellence in community, character, competition and academics.
Arioto said it was frustrating to watch the College World Series from the bench last year; this June, she hopes to be celebrating a national championship.
“I think we have a really good thing going,” Arioto said.