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Nobody would have blamed UCLA for taking a few bumps last season. Fresh off another Women’s College World Series title, the Bruins were playing without Rachel Garcia and Bubba Nickles. The duo was selected for the Olympic team, and redshirted the season to train with Team USA.
UCLA would need to depend on some younger players in 2020 to increase their production to make up for their absence.
All the Bruins did was go 25-1 and finish ranked No. 1 in the nation before the coronavirus pandemic ended the season prematurely.
With redshirt seniors Garcia and Nickles back in the fold for 2021 as they continue preparing for the delayed Tokyo Olympics, UCLA has an envious amount of riches on the roster in a quest to repeat as WCWS champions yet again.
“I am completely spoiled with the athletes that I have,” said UCLA head coach Kelly Inouye-Perez, who will get no argument from any other coach in the country.
UCLA’s roster size stands at 25. The Bruins had only one senior choose not to return and added four true freshmen while welcoming back Garcia and Nickles.
But getting a chance to train together this fall required intense planning, strict Covid protocol adherence and logistical hurdles.
Inouye-Perez spent many hours over the summer with UCLA baseball coach John Savage going through all the details that would allow their programs to get back to practice.
They mapped out everything from how to enter the field to creating Covid-safe drills to sanitizing equipment.
The Bruins started at four hours a week of softball and expanded to 20 hours with intra-squad scrimmages interspersed. Throughout the fall, they gained strength, mobility and power in the weight room and by doing cardio sessions.
“It created an opportunity for us to come in and really elevate our athletes and where they are physically. They were able to use the time they got to be as productive as possible,” Inouye-Perez said. “We walked away from this fall and had one of the most productive positive experiences in the most difficult of circumstances. I am very proud of what we accomplished in our short window.”
Unlike last season, the Bruins are not expecting their freshmen to have to jump in right away and contribute heavily. Thessa Malau’ulu, Carson Armijo, Grace Guzman and Lauryn Carter can ease into the Division I level.
“It is a difficult year for them knowing we are returning everybody and adding two Olympians back to the roster. They are aware and it gives them time to be able to develop and learn the program,” Inouye-Perez said. “They are learning from the returners and learning really quickly how we do things and the culture of the program.”
EXTRA INNINGS: The longest games in WCWS college softball history
Malau’ulu is the most intriguing prospect. Her father played football at the University of Arizona, and her sister, Chloe, is a redshirt sophomore at Mississippi State.
Malau’ulu hit .508 with only two strikeouts in 72 at-bats as a junior at St. Anthony High in Long Beach, Calif.
“She is just a phenomenal, outstanding defensive third baseman and a very athletic left-handed hitter that has shown she has some power as well,” Inouye Perez said. “I think she can potentially make an impact in the lineup.”
Garcia’s absence last season gave UCLA’s staff a chance to flourish under more intense scrutiny. It passed the early tests with flying colors, meaning the 2021 season holds even even more promise with greater quality depth.
“I couldn’t be more excited,” Inouye-Perez said. “I think when Rachel was picked for the Olympic team the whole country had a sigh of relief. If the Pitcher of the Year and World Series MVP leaves the program, it causes a great deal of celebration.”
But redshirt sophomore Megan Faraimo helped ensure the cheering largely remained in UCLA’s dugout. The 6-foot right-hander went 13-1 with a 0.85 ERA, 149 strikeouts and only five walks in 90.1 innings pitched. She threw five shutouts, and had nine double-figure strikeout games.
“She came in and put the team on her back in 2020 and showed the country she is here to compete,” Inouye-Perez said. “I couldn’t be more proud of Megan. She was looking for that responsibility as the defending champion to have it set up for her.”
Lexi Sosa was able to get some valuable time in the circle as a true freshman in 2020, going 4-0 with a 1.50 ERA, 29 strikeouts and nine walks in 28.0 IP.
Redshirt junior Holly Azevedo was 8-0 with a 1.74 ERA, 43 strikeouts and six walks in 44.1 IP.
In leading the Bruins to the 2019 WCWS title, Garcia finished 29-1 with a 1.14 ERA and 286 strikeouts in 202.0 IP. The two-way All-American hit .343 with 11 home runs and 57 RBIs.
Garcia’s relentless work ethic sustained throughout the pandemic, leading to some good-natured ribbing from the coaching staff.
“She is just literally physically stronger. We were laughing that we have to change her uniform size because she is just so yoked right now,” Inouye-Perez said. “She is really cut and fit and hit 70 on the radar multiple times. But it’s also a credit to her work with (UCLA pitching coach) Lisa (Fernandez) and the national team. She really developed more off-speed pitches.”
UCLA batted .368 as a team in 2020, with seven starters hitting at least .350. Adding Garcia and Nickles should only make the lineup even more potent.
Redshirt junior Aaliyah Jordan batted a team-leading .435 with 13 doubles and 27 RBIs in 2020.
“She is just clutch under pressure,” Inouye-Perez said. “The girl hits for effortless power and has the ability to hit the ball to all fields. She is just a gamer.”
Maya Brady batted .356 with seven home runs and 28 RBIs as a true freshman starter.
“She added unbelievable power to our offense," Inouye-Perez said. "She did an amazing job as a freshman and clutched up at important times. Her swing is not something you would say, 'Oh my God, she has the most beautiful swing.' But when the ball comes off her bat, it’s just in a different category.”
Redshirt junior Briana Perez batted .420 with 28 RBIs and 31 runs scored in 2020. Redshirt sophomore Kelli Godin batted .364.
Redshirt junior Delanie Wisz batted .359 with five doubles, five home runs and 20 RBIs. Redshirt junior Kinsley Washington batted .353 with 15 RBIs.
Perez, Godin and Washington combined to steal 37 bases in 39 attempts.
Nickles led UCLA with 18 home runs and 72 RBIs during the WCWS title run in 2019. The All-American batted .390 with 66 runs scored.
“She is one of the best hitters I have seen,” Inouye-Perez said. “She squares up the ball consistently and hits for power and average. She is calm during at-bats, which is why she is such a great leadoff for us. She sees a lot of pitches.”
And UCLA will have more #MomBombs in 2021. Redshirt senior catcher Jenavee Peres is returning. After playing three seasons at San Diego State, Peres walked away from softball in 2017 when she became pregnant with her son, Levi. But she was lured back last season, and hit four home runs in 29 at-bats with an .828 slugging percentage for the Bruins.
“I love the balance we have between power and speed and experience,” Inouye-Perez said. “Together, I am really excited about our offensive threats.”
Inouye-Perez values the chance to grow her players into strong female leaders that can excel in life beyond the white lines.
Given all that has been happening in the world over the last year, the Bruins got a chance to have some deep discussions about important topics.
They didn’t shy away from talking about social justice issues, the health pandemic or the political changes in the country.
“It was really about not assuming everybody sees through your lens, but also having a voice to take a stand and be able to have opinions and create a dynamic where through all the adversity we can come together as a family and be able to have some difficult conversations,” Inouye-Perez said. “We had some powerful meetings where we could have those difficult conversations and bring awareness to what other people may be perceiving.”
The Bruins believe they emerged from the discourse with invaluable life lessons and social tools that will translate far beyond softball.
“It’s not what happens, but what you do next that is your defining moment in all of those scenarios. You are a powerful female and somebody who has a voice and can use it responsibly,” Inouye-Perez said. “It’s how you respond to this when people are watching. It’s being respectful of the bigger picture and be able to learn from different perspectives.”
The Pac-12 head coaches have been in frequent communication about potential plans for the 2021 schedule given how much Covid has impacted teams in the conference footprint.
Although nothing has been confirmed, they have considered various scenarios to get as many games played safely as possible.
“We are aligned as a conference with one message and doing what is best for the girls and athletes to get games in 2021,” Inouye-Perez said. “It’s comforting knowing we have all been able to communicate and have so much respect for each other. The coaches are truly working together to make sure the Pac is ready to do whatever they tell us we are capable of doing.”