Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - October 7, 2011

Softball star learns sports lessons while recovering

Better self-knowledge lands Arioto on championship Team USA

by Dennis Miller

It seemed to be the beginning of a great 2011 for former Foothill High softball star Valerie Arioto. She was starting practice for her senior year at UC Berkeley on a team expected to be among the elite in the nation and internationally, and Arioto was considered a front-runner to make Team USA for the summer stretch of tournaments.

But everything seemed to unravel in a matter of seconds one day in January, on the second day of practice for Cal.

When Arioto was sliding into second base -- something she has done thousands of times in her career -- her cleat got stuck in the ground and a pain shot through her leg. Having played years of both competitive softball and soccer, Arioto knew right away this was not a simple injury.

"I knew it was something different," said Arioto, almost wincing at the memory. "It really hurt -- something was wrong."

It was. Arioto had broken her leg, but even then the optimistic Arioto kept calm.

"I thought it would be like six weeks," said Arioto.

After seeing a specialist, it was decided Arioto needed surgery just four days later and the length of time she would be out went from six weeks to four months. It was a lot of handle emotionally.

"I just started bawling," said Arioto. "It was the second day of my senior year and now I wasn't going to be able to play -- no postseason -- nothing. I was devastated -- it was a bad time."

Athletes have one of two ways to go when suffering a traumatic injury. Either they wallow in a world of self-pity, or they opt to make the best of the bad situation and become a better person because of the adversity.

Arioto chose the latter.

"I wanted to be there for the team," said Arioto, who was the lone senior on her Cal team. "I wanted to do this and be helpful any way I could."

By traveling with the team and watching the games from the sidelines, Arioto was an inspiration to her teammates. She was also learning more about herself.

"I learned so much relating to the dynamic of a team," explained Arioto. "When you are sitting there not playing, you see so much more. I would see players get stressed when they are at the plate and think about how I would get that way. I learned a lot about how to be a better player."

Cal ended up advancing to the College World Series before being eliminated, but with no seniors on the roster, the entire team will return for next season and should be among the nation's elite again. Arioto will play a fifth year next year.

But there was still some unfinished business this year. With her rehabilitation progressing well, Arioto turned her attention to getting back on to the field and earning a spot on Team USA for the summer.

After spending two years on the USA Futures team (a feeder program for the main team), as well as getting some time with the top team, Arioto figured to be in a good spot heading into tryouts -- that is if she were healthy.

"After realizing I wasn't going to play for Cal, I wanted to get back for the USA tryouts," explained Arioto of the mid-June event. "I talked with the coaches and they said if I was healthy, I had a great chance. That really motivated me and I was cleared a week before the tryouts."

Arioto made the team at first base (she also pitches for Cal) and turned the summer into her own personal softball playground.

She started all six games for the United States as the team went 5-1 and won the World Cup of Softball in Oklahoma City. She hit .438 in the six games and led the team in doubles (2), home runs (2), RBI (11) and total bases (17). She also was flawless in the field.

Of her home runs, one was a grand slam against Japan and of her 11 RBI, 10 came with two outs. It was a vintage clutch performance, perhaps made somewhat possible by the chance she had to sit and observe her teammates during the college season.

"I don't know what happened in those other at-bats," said Arioto with a laugh. "It just felt so good to be out there playing again. I have such great teammates. Look at the grand slam -- if my teammates don't get on base in front of me, then I don't have a chance."

After some time in Hawaii lying on the beach, Arioto headed back to college for her final year. She played fall games with the Bears before donning her red, white and blue uniform again for the Pan-Am Games from Oct. 17-23 in Guadalajara, Mexico.

After that, it's back to the college season and, even more importantly, finishing off her Cal degree in American studies with an emphasis in media technology and entertainment.

As for her success on the softball field, it was almost expected given her vast athletic skills. But it is the work in the classroom that arguably excites Arioto the most.

She would be the first to admit that until she got to college, academics were not in the forefront of her mind. But you can't become an elite athlete without a superior work ethic and Arioto approached her course load at Cal the same way.

"It was an eye-opener," said Arioto of the academic work load. "It was been a total change and I really had to motivate myself. There were a lot of people who told me I wouldn't cut it and I am glad I could prove them wrong."

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