Valerie Arioto and Haylie McCleney share how other sports helped them in softball, what their parents did to support their athletic journeys, and their excitement for softball's return to the Olympics.
Valerie Arioto and Haylie McCleney’s journeys didn’t start as little girls on linear paths to softball stardom. Arioto tried dance and gymnastics and competed in water skiing until she was in middle school. She also played basketball and volleyball.
The only reason softball distinguished itself to her in Pleasanton, California, is because of the post-rec-league barbecues and pool parties.
“I always associated softball with family and community,” Arioto says. “That’s one of the biggest things for me. It was more than softball. It’s about supporting each other along the way.”
Across the country, in tiny Morris, Alabama, McCleney first played soccer in an indoor church league, then she also played basketball and football, culminating in a start opposite a future NFL quarterback.
She still vividly remembers when she first envisioned herself as a softball pro. The U.S. women’s Olympic team was on a national tour and stopped in Birmingham, Alabama. She was captivated by the pitching prowess of Cat Osterman.
“I thought, ‘I want to be an Olympic softball player,” McCleney recalls. “For some reason, that clicked with me. I was 14 years old.”
They both played and loved different sports, learned from coaches who encouraged and empowered and now stand on the cusp of becoming Olympians themselves.
Arioto and McCleney will be among the stars featured as USA Softball hosts the International Cup, an event that includes some of the top teams from around the world, including Japan, Mexico and China, among others.
They are already on the U.S. women’s roster for the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru. Then they will participate in the final tryout in the fall to make the U.S. Olympic team that will compete at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo next summer.
“For a while, it was taken away,” McCleney says, referring to softball last competing in the Olympics in 2008. “There’s pride playing with ‘USA’ across your chest. So to see it come to fruition and have a chance to be on that roster is incredible. I wouldn’t have dreamed it was possible.”
McCleney grew up in Morris, a one-stoplight town with a population fewer than 2,000 people. The nearest grocery store was more than 20 minutes away from her family’s home. Kids in town were always outside, playing different games and sports.
But her parents realized early that she was very, very competitive. The first organized sport she played was soccer, in a church league. But after a few games, McCleney had a message for her mother.
“Mom, I can’t play in this league anymore,’ ” she recalls. “They don’t keep score!”
She also played Pee Wee football, and she started at quarterback. Her team was solid, winning three or four games. But her highlight came in a loss when she played against another promising athlete from the area.
“Jameis Winston was the quarterback,” she says, “and they destroyed us! I scored, though. I’ll hold onto that. That was my football claim to fame.”
But basketball was her first love. She loved the pace of the game, the overall athleticism it demands. But her aspirations in the sport took a hit in eighth grade when she stopped growing.
For Arioto, she played multiple sports through middle school, then softball and soccer throughout high school. She says one of her strengths is her overall athleticism.
“All the different sports have different movements,” she says, “but it all comes together.”
Soccer, for instance, helped her with conditioning and running. Water skiing honed her balance and overall strength. Basketball and volleyball developed her hand-eye coordination.
McCleney is an all-around threat as a softball player. But she is highly touted for her defense, robbing opponents of home runs and base hits as a centerfielder. That’s because of basketball, she says.
“The vertical jump, the timing, the footwork,” she says. “That’s from basketball.”
She says football instilled in her mental toughness, especially since she was competing against boys.
“I wouldn’t be half the athlete I am,” McCleney says, “if I didn’t play all those other sports.”
FAMILY AND FOCUS
Coaching also played a huge part in the development of Arioto and McCleney. Both had several excellent coaches, but both also insisted their fathers were critical to all that they’ve achieved.
Arioto says her parents ensured she had a balanced life and avoided burnout, and that her father fostered a passion in her. He also helped her hone her craft with extra work.
“He was instrumental,” she says. “My dad is still in the front yard, helping me take swings!”
McCleney says she could not have reached to this point without her father, a high school baseball coach who also assists with the basketball and football teams.
“I know he was so tired coming home from work,” McCleney says. “But he would play catch, rebound. Literally every day. Without him, I don’t think I would have developed into who I am.”
Arioto and McCleney each had the opportunity to transition from high school to major in-state colleges close to home. McCleney headed to the University of Alabama, just over an hour from home, and she ended her career as one of the program’s greatest players: All-time leader in batting average (.447), on-base percentage (.569), walks (199) and triples (16), and top-five in runs (2nd), stolen base percentage (2nd), slugging percentage (3rd), hits (4th) and stolen bases (5th).
She was also a four-time All-American.
Arioto was a three-time All-American and also was named Pac-12 Player of the Year and set school and conference record with 22 home runs in a single season.
Berkeley, home of the Cal Bears, was just 30 minutes from Arioto’s parents.
“I knew I wanted to stay close to home,” she says. “I tell kids to do your research. That was non-negotiable for me. They could come to see me play, and I got to go home when I wanted to and get a home-cooked meal. That was awesome!”
But sticking with softball takes lots of sacrifices. There are not lucrative contracts out there, and Arioto and McCleney have juggled with the demands to remain an elite athlete with work opportunities to make money. McCleney, who majored in exercise sciences, does some training and speaking at softball camps. Arioto has done some coached and even played professionally in Japan.
“I’d be lying if I said there weren’t challenges to continuing to play,” says Arioto, who is 30 years old. “But we make it work to continue to play. The challenges are kind of trumped by the successes we’ve had, and the strides we’ve made with the program. I don’t see them as anything that gets in the way.”
Besides, the inherent challenges of the sport drive each of them.
“I just liked how you're always learning,” Arioto says. “Sometimes, you feel great, and you’re not getting hits so you learn to celebrate the little things. You have to evolve with the game."
“I played this game because I loved it,” she adds, “and I continue to play because I love it.”
McCleney says she loves that softball is a game of failure.
“I just love that it’s so hard!” she says. “There are so many life lessons that you learn from this game. Softball forces you to fail forward because you will fail, you will make an error. But you have to keep moving forward. I know one failure does not define me so I keep pushing and trying to get better every day.
“In softball,” she adds, “you have to win the battle in between your ears in order to win the battle between the lines.”
The coming months will be critical for McCleney and Arioto, especially with tryouts for the Olympic team in October. But they both are excited about the process and positive about their chances.
“Anything I do, I want to do to the best of my ability,” McCleney says. “Whether that’s being a teammate, being a strength and conditioning coach, a sister, daughter, friend. Do everything the best I can. It’s an innate desire in me.”