UCLA softball chasing title with mix of experience, young talent
Embarrassing isn’t the word UCLA softball coach Kelly Inouye-Perez would use, even if the end result was embarrassing.
The 15-0 loss to eventual champions Oklahoma that ended UCLA’s season still lingers on the Bruins’ minds eight months later. The Bruins pushing the powerful Sooners to an elimination game in the Women’s College World Series semifinals showed how close UCLA was to their goal, but how quickly the deciding game got away from the Bruins reminded them how much further they were need to go. Since then, the bitter memories have been buzzing.
“We have a little fire in our stomachs,” Inouye-Perez said recently.
Fueled by “missed opportunities” of the past few years, Inouye-Perez hopes to lead a mix of veteran Pac-12 transfers, talented newbies and longtime advocates playing in time borrowed from the pandemic to UCLA’s first national championship since 2019 . The No. 2-ranked Bruins begin their season Thursday against Cal State Fullerton in the Stacy Winsberg Tournament at Easton Stadium.
while no. 1 Oklahoma seeks to become the first school to win three consecutive national titles since UCLA in 1988-90, the Bruins are looking to restore their own championship glory.
“We’re respected, but at the same time I think people have forgotten that UCLA is the most successful program in the history of the sport,” senior Maya Brady said. “There’s a reason for that and there’s a reason why so many great players keep coming back here. … At the end of the day, at least the returnees, I know we have a chip on our shoulder.”
With four transfers and seven freshmen, UCLA’s returning squad is smaller than it has been in recent seasons, and there are big gaps to fill. The Bruins lost first baseman Kinsley Washington, who drove in the 2019 national championship run, and catcher/third baseman Delanie Wisz, who led the Bruins in batting average, RBIs and homers last year.
The biggest vacancy is at shortstop, where Briana Perez patrolled 162 straight games. The 2022 Pac-12 defensive player of the year and UCLA leader in career runs sat out just four games of her five-year career. Even months after starting preseason workouts, Brady still had trouble imagining the program without Perez.
Brady, a former high school shortstop turned midfielder at UCLA, optioned back to infield after Perez’s departure, along with freshman Megan Grant and redshirt junior Seneca Curo.
While Brady worked in both midfield and shortstop ahead of the season opener, the return to infield was an exciting homecoming, albeit a bumpy return at first.
“It’s such a big transition,” said Brady, who led the Bruins with 14 postseason hits last year. “I kind of had to relearn the things that were in my DNA five years ago, but it’s definitely like I’m coming back to myself very, very slowly but surely.”
Aside from Perez’s ironclad reliability, consistent hitting and steady catching, the Bruins miss the five-year starter’s leadership, pitcher Megan Faraimo said. The reigning Pac-12 Thrower of the Year says she’s committed to filling the critical void.
After liking going with the flow of the bullpen early in her career, Faraimo caught the eye of Inouye-Perez at a recent practice when the ace took over from assistant coach Lisa Fernandez and the pitchers through extra conditioning, cardio, a groundball program and conducted their mental routines.
“She’s always the best team player, but her mission is very clear,” said Inouye-Perez. “She wants to be able to help her team win a national championship.”
The pandemic dashed UCLA’s hopes of a repeat in 2020 when the Bruins were No. 1. The 2021 season, when a hand injury kept Faraimo out of the World Series, exposed UCLA’s thin pitching staff. Last year, UCLA lost in the opening game and struggled through the consolation round to the semifinals, where the Bruins beat Oklahoma in the first game but couldn’t pull off the shocking upset twice in one day when the Sooners played their pitching depth.
The Bruins believe they have the depth to fight this year.
Three of their four transfers were previously celebrated by all conferences, led by two-time All-Pac-12 first-team catcher Sharlize Palacios and former Oregon ace Brooke Yanez. Palacios finished second in the RBI’s Pac-12 last year while helping Arizona to the World Series. Yanez, who Brady dubbed “the best pitcher I’ve ever come across,” was named a first-team All-Conference team in 2021 before sitting out last year with injury.
The seven freshmen, led by Softball America runner-up Taylor Tinsley, are “probably the best class of freshmen I’ve seen,” said second baseman Anna Vines. With Faraimo ending her career this season, Tinsley is the heir apparent to the circle. The 5-foot-7 right-hander from Georgia is “fearless,” Faraimo said.
From freshmen turning 18 to seventh-year outfielder Aaliyah Jordan, Faraimo called the range of experiences on the UCLA list “the oddest mix ever.” This also makes the Bruins perfectly suited for their title hunt.
“We’re just a force to be reckoned with,” Brady said. “This mix of experience here, new experiences and the positive attitude, I think it’s almost the perfect storm.”
https://www.latimes.com/sports/ucla/story/2023-02-06/ucla-softball-begins-championship-chase UCLA softball chasing title with mix of experience, young talent