In her continuing education as one of the nation's top collegiate softball players, Cal senior Valerie Arioto will bring a new weapon to the diamond this weekend when the No. 2 ranked Golden Bears open Pac-12 play with a three-game series at No. 9 Stanford.
The pitcher/first baseman from Pleasanton, who missed all of last season after breaking her leg, believes she is a more focused player, and gives some of the credit to the one-unit "Laughter and Meditation" class she is taking this semester.
"When I play, sometimes I get stressed out and really anxious," Arioto said. "I thought maybe meditation would help me calm myself."
An online course description suggests the class might allow students to "clear the mind and bring a sense of relaxation and energy (yep, both) to the body."
"I've never done anything like it before," Arioto said. "Maybe it's working."
It certainly hasn't hurt. Arioto has sparked Cal's 26-1 start with a .450 batting average, a team-best 11 home runs, a conference-best slugging percentage of 1.067 and an NCAA-leading on-base mark of .660. As a pitcher, she is 12-0 with an 0.89 earned run average.
"She ranks up there with the best in the country," said Stanford coach John Rittman. "She's really matured into a complete softball player."
Oregon coach Mike White, who worked as an assistant coach last summer when Arioto played on the USA national team, said the 22-year-old from Foothill High is among the five best players in college softball.
"She's taken a team that's probably top 12 and now they're top 2," he said. "Valerie is a big part of that."
The Bears reached the College World Series last season for the first time since 2005, despite the fact that Arioto missed the entire season after fracturing her left fibula in a sliding drill during the team's second practice.
She was healthy enough to hit .368 in 26 games with the USA squad last summer but was strictly an observer during the college season. Coach Diane Ninemire believes the season benefitted Arioto, helping her mature.
"It's taking your ego out of it and just looking at the game objectively and (saying), 'When I come back, how can I help?' That really puts everything in perspective, and I think she's learned a lot from that," Ninemire said.
Arioto agrees. "I realized the people who are having success are the ones who are poised and patient," she said. "I'm still a very feisty person and sometimes I do need to calm that feeling. Mentally, I feel like I've improved."
Patience has become critical this season because opposing teams often are tempted to pitch around her. Arioto has drawn 37 walks -- most in the nation -- contributing to her robust on-base average.
Stanford's Rittman sees the difference but said it's helpful to Arioto that she's surrounded by a potent lineup. "If you don't pitch to her, you're going to have to pitch to someone else who's pretty good," he said. "But she's a patient hitter and knows her strike zone. She's a tough out."
Arioto will play again this summer for the national team, splitting time with the National Pro Fastpitch league's Florida Pride, which recently drafted her in the second round. Her dream summer trip would have been to the London Olympics, but softball was axed from the Olympic program.
"It's very disappointing," she said. "That's the top of the pyramid."
In the meantime, Arioto is eager to help the Bears back to the College World Series, and make her first appearance at the event.
"I think we're up there with the best," she said. "This is the year for us, definitely."