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Tara Henry | D1Softball.com | December 16, 2019

How UCLA softball plans to respond after its 2019 championship season

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The 12-time national champions and defending 2019 title winners are gearing up for a different type of season.

UCLA advanced to the Women’s College World Series for the fifth straight season and brought home its second title under head coach Kelly Inouye-Perez. In her 14th season as the skipper, Inouye-Perez has managed to keep the infamous “Bruin Bubble” intact and attributes their success to strong leadership.

“We had a large senior class with some very special people, not necessarily the most impactful class, but strong Bruins that understood the culture,” Inouye-Perez said.

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Let’s take a brief look back at 2019 before we dive into the 2020 fall report.

2019 UCLA softball recap

UCLA dominated regular season play with an astounding 46-5 record. Junior pitcher Rachel Garcia, the 2019 Collegiate Woman Athlete of the Year and Honda Cup winner, led the Bruins in the circle with support from both Megan Faraimo and Holly Azevedo.

“We had no adversity through preseason,” Inouye-Perez said. “As we hit so well that the pitchers had less pressure and vice versa. The pitchers dominated so well that they kept us in ballgames where we needed to come up with runs.”

The Bruins entered conference play with a terrific 29-1 overall record. The high-powered offense was led by Bubba Nickles, who hit .462 in Pac-12 play with 36 hits and 28 RBIs. Garcia, Taylor Pack, Aaliyah Jordan, and Kelli Godin also topped the leaderboard, hitting over .350 in conference play. The Bruins dominated conference action, winning every series until the final weekend.

Inouye-Perez noted that weekend as a pivotal point for her squad.

“The last weekend, senior weekend, we had a chance to win Pac-12 outright and dropped two games to Arizona, which was the perfect storm. We hadn’t lost a series all year,” she said. “We hadn’t lost to Arizona or lost a series to them in a long time. So, it was perfect. Here we have the hottest team in the country, and we lose our first series the weekend before regionals. We needed adversity.”

This adversity, coupled with a regional loss to Missouri, lit a fire under the UCLA squad. That fire never diminished, as the Bruins toppled James Madison in two games in the Los Angeles Super Regional and went 5-0 at the WCWS. In Oklahoma City, the Bruins scored 37 runs in five games. The Bruins scored a record-setting 16 runs in Game 1 of the championship series and clinched the title in the bottom of the seventh inning in Game 2. A walk-off base hit to the opposite field by Kinsley Washington propelled the Bruins to a 5-4 victory over Oklahoma.

Watch UCLA's walk-off single to clinch the 2019 Women's College World Series title

However, that was then, and this is now.

Let’s look at the 2020 UCLA Bruins.

2020 UCLA softball fall report

The 2020 season will undoubtedly be a different look in Westwood. The Bruins lose five starters, including Garcia and Nickles, who will forgo the season to play on the USA Softball Women’s National Team. Losing this pair will be tough on both sides of the ball. However, UCLA is more than familiar with losing talented players.

“You don’t replace people. We just figure out who we are,” said Inouye-Perez about the upcoming season, “We are a different look. We were pretty young last year and had only a few seniors. We literally have one senior in our program, which is unique, but we are athletic, young, and versatile.”

First, we look at the pitching staff, which is led by heralded coach and former star Lisa Fernandez.

In her tenure at UCLA, Fernandez has coached nine pitchers to 17 All-American awards, including Garcia. The Bruins may lose an All-American for the upcoming season but will look to a hard-throwing 6-foot right hander, Megan Faraimo, to pick up the slack. Faraimo had a successful freshman campaign, throwing 114 innings in 21 starts in the circle for the Bruins. She posted a 1.41 ERA with 16 wins, four losses and 11 complete games.

“She is a student of the game and very competitive,” says Fernandez, “She is very much team first in her mentality.”

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Also returning is junior right-hander Holly Azevedo, who appeared in 29 games for the Bruins and went 11-1 on the season.

“Holly just hit 68 (mph),” Inouye-Perez said. “She has a nasty changeup, wicked drop ball and compliments the staff, as the two others are up in the zone.”

Freshman Lexi Sosa is a talented newcomer who absolutely will factor into the rotation.

“Lexi has velo and changes speed. She is a great athlete and reminds me of Ally Carda,” said Inouye-Perez. “Sosa 100 percent, will also hit.”

She is working closely with Fernandez on mixing speeds and getting acclimated to the system.

A big question mark for the Bruins will be behind the plate.

Last season, Paige Halstead and Colleen Sullivan split time catching for UCLA. However, the Bruins were dealt a massive blow this offseason when Sullivan decided to transfer to Texas. The sudden vacancy behind the plate allows two freshmen — Alyssa Garcia and Sara Rusconi Vicinanza — an opportunity to compete all fall. On a positive note, both catchers previously worked with Faraimo and Sosa.

“They both grew up in the San Diego area. Alyssa has been on high-level travel ball teams,” Inouye-Perez said. “Sara is very savvy as a catcher and works really well with people.”

Both will be battling for the starting position unless we see an uncharacteristic late January transfer for the Bruins. Stay tuned.

Defense

Youth will be a main theme on defense this year. UCLA has just two returners on the dirt in junior Briana Perez and sophomore Kinsley Washington. Freshman Maya Brady could also split time with Washington as she has been working out at both second and third base this fall.

“We have Seneca and Maya, two converted middle infielders working over at third. We could potentially have five freshmen on the field,” Inouye-Perez said.

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During the fall, Jordan played centerfield and freshman Taylor Edwards saw time in right. Kelli Godin will join both of them in the spring as she is nursing a hip injury. Junior Julie Rodriguez and senior Jacqui Prober also saw time in the outfield this fall and both upperclassmen showed strong performance.

Offense

The Bruins may be young but they have plenty of experience.

“Speed is going to be our deal,” said Inouye-Perez.

Briana Perez returns to the Bruin offense and will move up a slot from second to leadoff position, providing both speed and power atop the lineup. Godin will also be in the mix, as long as she is healthy to start the season. Jordan, Washington, and Faraimo will add some serious firepower to the lineup. Yes, Faraimo can hit and will be in the lineup this year.

“It’s natural to be compared to Garcia,” said Inouye-Perez as she spoke about Megan returning to hitting this fall, “But, she is hitting bombs at Easton. She is obviously one of those dominant athletes that can crush the ball. Her goal is to be the best Megan.”

Freshman class

After watching Edwards in fall ball, it is going to be hard to keep her out of the lineup. Edwards, a recruited walk-on, is scrappy, versatile and puts the ball in play. She plays infield and outfield.

Curo is another freshman to watch, and she’s a former baseball player and swings like one. She has a presence about her at the plate and will have her own cheering squad in the stands, as she is the first athlete to play a collegiate sport from the Barona Indian Reservation.

Arguably one of the best athletes on the field, Maya Brady, packs a big punch.

“She’s a great athlete and hits it oppo over the fence,” said Inouye-Perez, “and she’s laid back and casual.”

The tall left-handed hitter is the perfect combination of strength and speed and will make an impact wherever she ends up in the lineup.

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Yes, 2019 was a good year for the Bruins, but Inouye-Perez is realistic. “We understand we won the natty, people are gone. Our goal is to get to the end with as much experience as possible. It’s going to be a different look. The goal is going to be a top eight seed. It’s not as easy to get to WCWS.”

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