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April 22, 2009

Pure Silver: Cal softball about to rock

Last Wednesday, on a glorious afternoon in Berkeley, I headed up from Haas Pavilion (where I'd just given a post-NCAA championship hug to Cal women's swimming coach Teri McKeever) to Levine-Fricke Field to watch the Golden Bears' revitalized softball team host St. Mary's College.

It was the first time I'd seen this year's 15th-ranked team in person, and I was thrilled to see the all-freshman, all-fast outfield of Frani Echavarria and twins Jamia and Elia Reid. Another newcomer, junior second baseman Shannon Thomas (a transfer from Texas), is also a burner. This is the fastest group Diane Ninemire has had in her 22 years at Cal, and there's little doubt in my mind we are witnessing the start of a very special run.

I was also excited to see hard-hitting holdovers Gina Leomiti, Vernae Sevilla, Sanoe Kekahuna (who got the day off) and Taylor Kelly, who'd just blasted a walk-off homer on Saturday to give the Bears a series victory over then-No. 2 Stanford.

The player who left the biggest impression, however, was a sophomore who is neither blinding on the basepaths nor overtly overpowering, at the plate or on the mound. What Valerie Arioto is, however, is the key to Cal's revival.

She's the pivotal player on a team that has the potential to return to the Women's College World Series for the first time in three years, when it made the last of seven consecutive appearances.

And if things play out the way I think they will, Arioto will be the unquestioned leader of a team that, in 2010 and 2011, should have a legitimate shot at capturing its second (and perhaps third) NCAA title.

Arioto, quite simply, is a baller. The kid does everything well, and she does whatever her team needs at the moment. She seems impervious to pressure and incapable of backing down from a challenge.

In other words, she's the kind of steely competitor who'd have fit right in with the special group (Chelsea Spencer, Jessica Pamanian, Kaleo Eldredge, Haley Woods… I'm getting misty-eyed typing now about the team that played for three consecutive championships from 2002-04, winning it all the first year, losing in the championship game to UCLA in the latter two. If Cal is to return to those heights, Arioto will be the one in the pilot's seat.

Arioto has been the Bears' leadoff hitter since arriving as a freshman. That she retained the job this year is a somewhat incredible feat given how many ultra-fast alternatives Ninemire has at her disposal. The speed influx did cost Arioto her spot in the outfield; she's now the team's regular first baseman.

Except that, as the season has progressed, Arioto has spent less time at first and more in the circle. Junior Marissa Drewrey is supposed to be Cal's ace, but over the past week-and-a-half it has become apparent that Arioto is the one Ninemire trusts with the most important games on the line.

The sea change came in the Stanford series, which began two Thursdays ago with a night game on the Farm. In that game, Arioto relieved Drewrey in a 4-1 defeat. On Friday, Arioto celebrated her 20th birthday with two hits at the plate and a complete-game, 3-1 victory at Levine-Fricke. Significantly, Ninemire went with Arioto again on Saturday, and after six innings the sophomore had a 6-1 lead she'd helped build at the plate (3-for-3, two doubles, two RBI).

Then, in the top of the seventh, the Cardinal put together a dramatic rally aided by a costly error on Kelly. Even as Stanford tied the game at 6, Ninemire stuck with Arioto, who clearly didn't have her best stuff. And while three of the five runs Arioto allowed that inning were earned, she kept the Bears in position to win-and Cal, with a Thomas single and Kelly's redemptive dinger, got her the victory.

Were the Bears as loaded as some of Ninemire's teams from the first half of the decade, Arioto would be a standout position player who served, at most, as a spot pitcher. It's not that she doesn't have the right temperament or good stuff-her best pitch is thrown at variable speeds and appears to resemble a baseball slider, curving in from right to left to freeze frustrated batters. (I saw plenty of that in the 1-0 victory over St. Mary's last week, as Arioto, who relieved Drewrey after three innings, struck out 11 of the 15 batters she faced.)

It's just that Arioto, in a perfect world, should be leading off games with singles, coming around to score and smiling because she knows she has a teammate capable of shutting out even a potent Pac-10 lineup.

Ninemire had that with Jocelyn Forest, hero of the '02 WCWS, and in tandem with Kelly Anderson and Kristina Thorson for the next three seasons. In '06, when only Thorson remained, the skinny kid with the cold stare nearly willed the Bears into their eighth consecutive World Series, winning Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year honors before Cal stumbled in a close Super Regional at Oregon State.

Thorson was one of the best softball players Cal has ever had, but her talent wasn't obvious to most coaches (Ninemire excepted) coming out of high school. Though she grew up in the shadow of the University of Washington, the Huskies didn't even offer her a partial scholarship.

Conversely, the two pitchers Ninemire recruited to succeed the great Thor, Drewrey and Brittany LaRosa, were monster recruits, each considered to be in the top 5 nationally at their position, or perhaps even the top three. LaRosa (Rivals' No. 2 pitcher in '06) struggled from the start and now, as a junior, has been shelved by injuries-she has appeared in just three games, all as a reserve first baseman.

Drewrey, a 6-3 flamethrower, is more complicated. After a messy freshman season Drewrey developed into an ace as a sophomore and came up huge in Cal's upset victory at the Fresno Regional (the Bears were later eliminated by top-seeded Florida in the Supers). Through much of '09 Drewrey seemed to be building on that momentum and becoming the type of force Ninemire had envisioned when she recruited her.

Right now, be it because of injury, mental struggles or both, Drewrey looks like a mess out there. Her only appearance during the Bears' lost weekend in Arizona (they lost close games to ASU and Arizona sandwiched around a Cats blowout on Saturday) was a disastrous start in which she gave up a pair of grand slams in the bottom of the first, leaving after retiring just two batters.

Arioto wasn't perfect in the desert, but she battled all weekend, getting a pair of hits in a complete-game defeat to the Sun Devils on Friday, jacking a two-run dinger near the end of the 11-2 Arizona debacle and, with Cal trailing the Cats 7-5 on Sunday, leading off the seventh with a single before being stranded at third (with Jamia Reid on second). Her pitching numbers weren't stellar, but she stayed competitive against some of the nation's most feared hitters.

Next year another blue-chip recruit, Jolene Henderson of Sheldon High in Sacramento, will arrive in Berkeley. As Drewrey and LaRosa have shown, it's no sure thing that she'll be as dominant as advertised. But my gut tells me that Henderson (and, for that matter, Sheldon catcher Lindsay Ziegenhirt, a fellow All-American), will make an instant impact on a loaded, battle-hardened team that, after '09, is scheduled to lose only Leomiti and reserve Carrie Arth.

If Henderson becomes the killer in the circle that she seems destined to be, Arioto can do most of her damage at the plate for a team that could very well win it all.

Until then, she'll do whatever her coach asks of her, and whatever her team needs.

Right now, that's merely everything.


-- Even as her team closed in on its first national championship, McKeever still retained a measure of disbelief. She went through this season thinking the Bears were perhaps two years away from a realistic shot at a title, and it wasn't until the third leg of the meet-ending 400 free relay, as sophomore Erica Dagg pulled into the lead with 50 yards to go (and star senior Dana Vollmer waiting to anchor), that McKeever turned to assistant Kristen Lewis-Cunnane and said, "Oh my God-we're gonna do it!"

-- Hi, I'm Jack Clark, and this is what my team does in the rugby regionals: Beat Minnesota, 67-0, on in the round-of-16 Saturday at Witter Field, then come back the following day with 22 fresh players and crush Cal Poly, 76-10. The Bears face Army in the Final Four on May 1 at Stanford and, if all goes according to plan, will successfully defend their national title (against BYU or San Diego State) the following day on the campus of their archrival. Is there anything better? Is any coach in any sport as awesome as Clark, whom I profiled for Sports Illustrated in '02?

-- Don't tell anyone, but it looks like I'll be spending draft day with-gasp-a Trojan. Before you stick your finger down your throat, I did pen this profile of the Bears' Rulon Davis for Yahoo! Sports.

-- Congrats to the Cal men's gymnastics team, which finished fourth nationally, and to senior Evan Roth, who won an individual title on the rings.

-- My favorite collegiate soccer star, Alex Morgan, just got back from training in Portland (along with Bears teammate Katie Oakes) with the U.S. Under-23 women's national team-yet another sign that third-year Cal coach Neil McGuire is building something very big. The Bears close out their spring season by hosting a seven-on-seven tournament this Saturday, an event which will raise funds for the team's summer trip to Italy. Hmm…. Any way I can be reincarnated as a current Daily Cal beat writer who, magically using my existing frequent-flier accounts, makes that trip?

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